The Going Rate

Tuesday, July 21 2015
The Going Rate

If anyone has any doubts as to trends in the entertainment business, to the sea-change affect the film and video industries, then they need look no further than the annual BBFC report.

The 2014 tome has just been published, offering up a sweeping look at our business in terms of where it’s heading. What’s more it’s a look that takes in the content of films – are they becoming more violent? – public attitudes to content and, perhaps most pertinently for a trade publication, you can see how consumption is shifting to new platforms.

Want proof? Well, as the report is published, The Raygun is granted a phone interview with one of its senior staffers, assistant director David Austin. Chatting through the figures, he can point out the changes to the business as viewed through submissions to the classification organisation. “The numbers have balanced out,” he notes. “Cinema submissions have increased quite dramatically since 2012 and video is declining slowly. Voluntary online ratings have shot up by 70 per cent.”

That huge rise on online business is helping offset the slow erosion of the number of video submissions, as special interest and DTV numbers start to decline. As Austin notes: “Overall, the number of submissions  submissions for 2014 is showing a slight increase on 2013.”

It’s perhaps ironic that in a fairly heavily legislated sector (at least in comparison with other countries), it’s voluntary classification that is growing. The BBFC brought it in 2009, with its Watch And Rate scheme being introduced two years later. “The numbers have gone through the roof,” Austin explains, “there was a threefold increase in 2013 over 2012, a 70 per cent rise 2014. That givers you an idea of how much it’s taking off.”

It’s working with platforms too – iTunes has taken BBFC ratings and inserted them into its parental controls, giving grown-ups a chance to ensure their kids aren’t watching inappropriate material on tablets, laptops and smartphones. (The only major platform that seems to plough its own furrow is Sky, when this writer suggests, as a parent, it’d be better if the assorted Sky portals signed up rather than using it’s own red-and-white age ratings, Austin’s succinct reply – “You’ll have to ask Sky about that.” – says as much as it doesn’t say.)

“We’ve had lots of discussions with platform distributors,” Austin continues, “and we set [online classification] up in partnership with distributors with the help of the BVA.”

There is no statutory obligation as there is with the Video Recordings Act, as Austin says, but material is still subject to the same rigorous process. “We were asked to come up with a self-regulatory, robust way [of handling online classification] and we apply the same system for vod that we do with the VRA, the same classification methods that we do for physical, online.”

Voluntary classification is becoming an increasingly important element of the BBFC’s work, with the organisation set to report back on its work with music companies and sites such as Vevo on voluntary age rating classification of music videos, one of the prime sources of concern.

As documented extensively on The Raygun, 2014 did see legislation in this area too, with changes to the law regarding what is and isn’t exempt from classification. Many independents were earful that changes would mean they’d have to submit documentary footage, additional features, with the financial implications and the cost involved making it difficult to even release titles into the market. “We’ve seen certain things, music DVDs, come in that would have claimed exemption in the past, we’ve seen some documentaries that would have claimed exemption in the past too. The law is achieving what it set out to achieve – catching content that is harmful.”

It’s the online sector that’s given the BBFC one of its more recent problems, with vod operator thehorrorshow.tv’s voluntary submission of Hate Crime being refused a certificate. And it’s likely to stay that way for some time, as Austin explains: “The company submitting it decided not to release it and it remains that way, there’s no change on that. We felt it was really problematic, there was no identification with the victims.”

What is interesting to note is that the level of complaints is nowhere near the amount of hysteria it generates.

As we noted in The Raygun newsletter, press coverage of the BBFC annual report always concentrates on the complaints, but even this year’s most complained about film, Mr Turner, only received a relative handful. “It is the thing that excites the press most,” says

Austin, “but it’s a tiny, tiny number.”

And while the case of The Railway Children may raise a chuckle – just one complaint and yet it dominated headlines for the 2013 report – it also reveals a more serious point about the BBFC, says Austin. For the relatively low level of complaints, in the low tens for individual titles, shows that the BBFC is getting it right.

“We haven’t had a lot of complaints,” he explains, “I put it down to a large extent to consulting the public. We follow what the public tells us. When we did the Guidelines research, we still got strong levels of public trust and support.”

As Austin further points out, teenagers were brought into the Guidelines consultation for the first time, adding: “They may be frustrated they can’t see the films, but they find classification a useful tool.”

Perhaps one of the most controversial elements of the BBFC’s recent work, certainly one of the most frustrating for a lot of the more vocal film fans, is, however, set to continue. It’s the more recent trend for distributors informally, voluntarily submitting films to see what certificate they’d be likely to get and then trimming it to get it down to, say, a 12 or 15. This concept of seeking advice ahead of a proper classification is featured prominently in the report, with the likes of Taken 3, Hercules, Pompeii, A Walk Among The Tombstones, Horns, The Equalizer, The Woman In Black – Angel Of Death were among titles listed that distributors sought pre-classification advice on. Some restore any trimmed elements to gain a higher certificate on subsequent home entertainment release. And while the informal nature of proceedings may signify a willingness to work with distributors and suppliers that is welcome following the far more adversarial James Ferman years where the two sides were seemingly at war, for many hardcore film fans, it represents a more underhand method.

“Some distributors do it for some films,” he says, “it’s their film and they want to get the age rating they are targeting.

“Sometimes it’s not possible to remove anything, tonal issues running through the film. Take something like Woman In Black: Angel Of Death, the issue was horror and teen threat throughout. But [distributors can] edit down a film and put in a toned down version, we’re more than happy with that.”

Is it a more common occurrence? Well, no-one knows. “We don’t keep statistics about films voluntarily taken to us,” says Austin.

While this may be a trend, it’s interesting too to note other general trends. If the BBFC report offers anything, it’s the chance to see how public attitudes are changing. There are a clutch of titles on this year’s report that have effectively been downrated, the likes of Jubilee and, er, Pumpkinhead II, both once rated 18, have now received 15 certificates.

“It’s not unusual for a film to come in for modern classification guides [with a lower classification],” concludes Austin. “There are less public concerns about consensual sex with adults There’s more concern about racism and discriminatory behaviour, drug misuse and self-harm. in some ways, [the public] is more liberal, in some ways stricter. Discrimination is very high in public concerns, much higher than it used to be.

“It’s not all one way traffic. Public attitudes to certain content changes.”

• We’ll have more from the BBFC Annual Report on our website shortly.

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