Monday, May 27, 2019

8 Things I Learned from the 2018 BBFC Annual Report

This blog is rated 15 for references to violence, sexual violence, and bragging from the author.

The 2018 BBFC Annual Report actually came out a bit earlier this year than we're used to; last year's report dropped on July 19th, whereas 2018's one came almost two month's earlier. However, so switched on are my BBFC-senses that I seemed to anticipate this, as I wrote my prediction blog a few weeks ago!

So, as per tradition for the past three years (2015 et 2016 et 2017), here were some notable points I took when devouring the report!

01. Emma knows her BBFC
This was also one of my takeaways from last year's report, and I'm aware it's a bit self-aggrandising to bring it up again, but it's not like me to self-promote, now is it? 😏

In my anticipation blog, I correctly called that Red Sparrow would be the most complained-about film of 2018, followed by Peter Rabbit, Show Dogs, A Northern Soul and Ready Player One. I even correctly predicted that Love, Simon's trailer would get the BBFC complaints.

True to BBFC form, they called upon their usual arsenal of weasel words when trying to justify their questionable decisions. I haven't seen Peter Rabbit and I don't agree with the Ready Player One and A Northern Soul's complaints, so I won't analyse the BBFC's wording for those films.

But their assertion that Red Sparrow's scenes of sexual violence didn't merit an 18 because they lacked 'aggravating factors such as strong nudity and eroticisation' makes you wonder how hard they require the rape scenes to be to get an 18.

It's also inconsistent with their historical treatment of other rape scenes in film and TV.  I can think of two counter-examples from 13 Reasons Why alone. The aversive scene where Bryce raped Hannah in season 1 was rated 18, and that didn't have any nudity, and it certainly wasn't erotic in any way shape, or form. And then in season 2, when Tyler got raped with a broom (shudder), that was also 18-rated (correctly), yet didn't feature any nudity and was the least titillating thing you could think of.

It's also a shady message that the BBFC are sending, that in order for a rape scene to get an 18, it needs to flaunt a bit of skin, given that the nature of rape scenes mean they're capable of being plenty disturbing without nudity, and should thus be restricted to the adult categories (such as the two 13RW examples).

I would respect the BBFC so much more if they just came clean about the fact that they're clearly in the pockets of big studios. The recent John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum was rated 15, yet contained a grisly, protracted eye-stabbing scene which I highly doubt would be allowed in an independent film. It seems that if a studio is willing to cough up the bucks, 20th Century Fox, in Red Sparrow's case, the BBFC are happy to just toss precedent out of the window. 

And if they attract 64 complaints about their questionable decision, they'll just enlist upon their deck of weasel words to try to explain their way out of it.

How dumb do they think we are?

02. Everyone deserves a great love story

The fact that I'd anticipated that people would complain about Love, Simon's PG-rated trailer didn't make reading about it in the report any less depressing.

18 people wrote in to the BBFC about the trailer, most of the gripes being that they didn't want to see a trailer about a gay teenage boy. These complaints are homophobia, plain and simple, and really makes me sigh, given we are no longer living in the stone ages, yet some people are still grasping onto values that belong in that era.

The BBFC's no-nonsense response to the homophobes was apt and succinct, 'We apply BBFC guidelines to the same standard regardless of sexual orientation'. 

This is what they said when people complained about Black Swan's lesbian scenes being in a 15, and no doubt what they'll have to reiterate in next year's annual report when people complained about the sapphic scenes in The Favourite.

And the BBFC are right to do so. To quote the tagline of Love, Simon, everyone deserves a great love story.

03. The more the BBFC deliberate over a decision, the more they'll try to over-justify it
Given how film classification nerds will often use the MPAA rating to try to predict what the BBFC will rate a movie, and how similar their decisions mostly are, it seems only natural that the BBFC would want to explain their decision-making when their ratings differ.

Interestingly, I noted that the more contestable the BBFC's decision, the more they tend to over-explain it.

One of the more high-profile discordances of 2018 was Mamma Mia! 2, which was a PG here and a PG-13 in America (as was the case with the first film) due to the sex references. Having suffered Lily James' blandnessseen MM2, I agree with the BBFC's PG decision and think the Americans are just being prudish. 

Ireland's board, the IFCO, is a pretty good decider in a 'best of three'-type scenario when the BBFC and MPAA differ, and the Irish also rated MM2 PG, making it PG: 2, PG-13, 1.

In this case, it seems the BBFC were fairly confident with their decision to rate Mamma Mia! 2, writing 'There is nothing crude or gratuitous in these references, which are comic and are placed in the context of an exuberantly ‘feel-good’ film'. 

When it came to The House with a Clock In Its Walls, however, I got the distinct impression of 'methink the BBFC doth protest too much'.

This film was rated PG in America and Ireland, yet a 12A here. I've seen it, and although there are moments which approach 'jump scares', the fantastical setting and cheery, jaunty score, meant that it never got into truly scary territory, and would have been comfortably placed at PG.

I got the impression the BBFC weren't fully behind their decision to give it its draconic 12A rating, when they wrote all this guff: 'Scary scenes include those in which the heroes are menaced by frightening, supernatural creatures including sinister puppets and slime-spitting pumpkins. Some of the imagery in the film is quite frightening and there are occasional scenes of supernatural threat.' The whole paragraph just smacked of overcompensation; and slime-spitting pumpkins are, by nature, more silly than scary.

The overcompensation for this title continued in the 'Advisory panel' for this film, where they stated that the panel unanimously agreed with the 12A rating. Not only do I find that rather contrived, but the fact that The House with a Clock in Its Walls needed an advisory screening at all, suggests that the BBFC weren't totally satisfied with their decision, and want to try to convince us that they were, as a way of convincing themselves.

04. A Quiet Place makes the case for the 14 - 16 system
John Krasinski's A Quiet Place, which he also starred in alongside real-life wife Emily Blunt, was a PG-13 in the States and a 15 over here. This in itself is not too bizarre, given the PG-13 rating has a higher tolerance for threat and violence than the 12A.

It was the sustained threat in A Quiet Place that ultimately secured the 15 certificate, the threat being that the characters live in a post-apocalyptic world where blind monsters are able to detect life through hyper-sensitive hearing, and thus, if the characters make any noise at any time, this solicits impending doom.

Visually, the film was discreet, but it was the over-arching sense of dread that led the BBFC (and IFCO) to adjudge A Quiet Place too intense for a 12A, giving it a 15 (and the Irish giving it 15A). This is a decision I support.

However, A Quiet Place is one of those films which I would classify as 'not a 12A' rather than 'a 15'. The 15-rating is extremely broad, ranging from films which creep into the category due to a few more f-bombs than allowed (Phantom Thread), to the relentlessly violent likes of John Wick. For A Quiet Place to be lobbed with the likes of John Wick, Logan and Deadpool may mis-lead audiences about just how violent it is (the visual detail was limited), and vice versa.

It is for this reason that Ireland have 15A and 16 in place of just 15 for cinematic releases, and it makes their lives a lot easier, because they can use it to differentiate between hard 15s and soft ones. They were able to have their cake and eat it with John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum by awarding it a 16 rating, because it meant 16 year-olds could see the film, yet the IFCO were sufficiently signalling that this was a boundary-pushing 15-rated film. 

Whereas because the BBFC just have the one 15 rating, many people who saw JW3 might have been expecting A Quiet Place-levels of violence, and been thoroughly traumatised.

In their Advisory Panel section, the BBFC wrote that 'the Panel agreed with our 15 rating and was clear that 12 or 13 year olds should not watch it although they accepted 14 year olds probably would have seen it despite the 15 rating', implying parents probably took their kids along and lied on their behalf.

This rule-breaking could be completely avoided if the BBFC just split the 15 rating into 14 and 16, thus giving the audience a clearer sense of the scope of the '15'-rated film they were about to see, meaning less nasty surprises for the audience, and consequently, less complaints to the BBFC.

05. The proof-reading of the BBFC Annual Report was not the best (or non-existent)
There were two goofs I spotted in the 2018 Annual Report, though I haven't read it word-for-word, so there may well be more. The first was what they claimed was the short insight for Black Panther:

Close, but not quite. Black Panther was actually classified 12A for 'moderate violence, injury detail, rude gesture'. I remember this because I wrote a lengthy discourse about how redundant it was to flag the rude gesture in this film. So I'm unsure if they left it out here because they realised how superfluous it was, or they just forgot. But if the BBFC make a call, they should stick to it, otherwise it just makes them look like they're backtracking.

Black Panther won three Oscars this year. Another film which took home three Oscars was Alfonso Cuarón's Roma, which was mentioned in the 15 section. They grouped Roma with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which was another 15-rated Netflix movie:

The fail here is that the writer in introduced Roma, clearly with the intention of talking about why it got a 15 ('disturbing images', which was a scene where a baby is stillborn, as well as a few stray f-words), yet the writer clearly forgot to, because the next paragraph goes straight on to discuss Night of the Living Dead.

Fail from the writer and the proof-reader, there.

06. Sometimes, cuts from an 18 to a 15 just aren't feasible
Assassination Nation, a dark satire on how the inhabitants of a town turn on each other when the contents of their phones are leaked, is set in a high school, and ostensibly filmed for a teenage audience. It was sent to the BBFC with a 15 request before formal submission, with the producers interested in whether any cuts could be made before the final product, so they could ascertain a 15.

The final film got an 18 for strong bloody violence and sexual threat. The BBFC wrote that, 'The extent of the violent scenes and the tonal impact they have on the film prevented cuts being viable in this case', which basically means that had the violent scenes been cut, it would have left a sizeable dent on the narrative, such that the film wouldn't make sense.

For the majority of films that are 18-rated, it's a couple of scenes that have the 18-rated content, and that's why producers are open to potentially editing them out so they can get the more lucrative 15 (such as with The Equalizer 2 and John Wick: Chapter 2).

With Assassination Nation, however, it sounds like the scenes of violence were pretty crucial to the plot, and sexual threat (aka guys stalking girls with the intention of raping them) is not something that can be easily watered down. So Assassination Nation stayed uncut, at 18.

07. ... and sometimes, cuts from 18 to 15 are feasible, but the studio wisely decides against them
Halloween, a sequel to the 1978 horror film, came out last year, with a 15 request, like Assassination Nation. The BBFC told the distributor that if they wanted the 15, they would have to make cuts to 'moments of strong bloody violence and gore. [...] A man being bludgeoned to death in a sadistic manner and a man's head being crushed, with resulting graphic detail'.

The studio decided they would rather keep these scenes in, and take the 18 rating. I concur with this decision. After all, Halloween is a well-known franchise now, and people go to see it especially for the sadistic blood and gore. So sanitising it for 15 would have done audiences a disservice.

Plus, 18-rated films are so few and far between these days, that the distributor should have worn it like a badge of honour. Perversely, sometimes being 18-rated can actually get you more revenue than if it were 15-rated, because those over 18 may be morbidly curious as to just how hard the content is in the film to have procured the rating.

08. Brexit will have no impact on the BBFC's business
In their strategic report, the BBFC assert that the directors do not consider the uncertainty incurred from Brexit will carry significant risk for the BBFC, and are confident that Brexit will have minimal impact on the business.

This makes sense if you think about it: even if Brexit weakened the pound and people had less disposable income to spend going to the cinema, this doesn't reduce the amount of films being made, and thus requiring certification.

So, even if Brexit adversely affects the spending powers of UK consumers, films from America, Europe, Asia, etc will still continue to be output at their usual rate, so it will be business as usual for the BBFC.

One final point of interest: in the Foreign currency risk section, the BBFC state that all of the company's financial instruments are denominated in sterling, thus insulating them from foreign exchange transactions.


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