Saturday, July 18, 2020

8 Lessons Learned from the 2019 BBFC Annual Report

The blog is rated 15 for strong sex references and drug references.

On Thursday, the BBFC dropped their 2019 Annual Report, which for film classification nerds, is also known as 'Most Complained about Films to the BBFC Day'. I spent Friday evening poring through the report, looking for clues and new information, and psycho-analysing every adjective used in the report. In short, I was in heaven.

Here were eight prominent things I noticed from reading it:

01. Emma knows her BBFC…
Tale as old as time… that the first point I make every year when discussing the BBFC annual report, is not an observation, but rather, a shameless display of braggadocio. The three most complained about films in 2019 were Joker, The Favourite and John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, and I'd predicted all three of these in my prognostication blog.

The reason I brag about getting this right, however, isn't purely to flex my BBFC knowledge, which I'm fairly confident about (I don't know many other people who have a whole page dedicated to their BBFC pieces). It's more of a celebration that I'm able to discern what the public's perception of the BBFC guidelines are, and this isn't just knowing what the ratings are, but also being able to read the room (in terms of film ratings), and know, before even cinemagoers do, the things that are likely to get under their skin.

For that reason, I knew, whilst I was watching Joker and JW3, that they were likely to be a cause of contention, for their upper-end of 15-level violence (both were explained away lazily in the BBFC Annual Report, consistent with previous years').

And, whilst the sex in The Favourite was, to borrow the BBFC's descriptive, 'unremarkable' for a 15-rated film (I'm sure sex with Emma Stone often is unremarkable), I also pre-empted the fact that sex scenes featured at all in an ostensibly 'classy' historical period piece that was up for Oscars, would confound cinemagoers' expectations.

(This phenomena is known as the 'Black Swan effect', and owes its name to Black Swan generating the BBFC 40 complaints in 2011, with a bulk of complaints coming from people not expecting to see such frank sexual activity in what they thought was going to be a nice film about ballet).

I have been working in financial consulting for nearly two years now, and the ability to read people (both the client and my fellow co-workers) is a skill that is a damn crucial. I like to think that my abilities at second-guessing people and armchair psychology, which I harvested over many years from poring over BBFC annual reports and podcasts, has come in helpful, and have helped me thrive in my dayjob.

02. …Although there was certainly room for improvement in my predictions
Because I was kept so busy by my aforementioned job last year, I didn't see as many 2019 releases as I would have liked to at the cinema. Two Box Office hits I missed out on were Alita: Battle Angel and Shazam!, which accrued five and four complaints, respectively. Obviously, if I don't see a film, it's unlikely that I'd be aware of its contentious content and write about it in my anticipation blog (write what you know, and that), but I'm kicking myself on missing out on a perfect prediction record.

I didn't particularly have an appetite to see either of those films as they're not my cup of tea, but I did momentarily consider Alita: Battle Angel, on the grounds that the lovely Dua Lipa did the movie's theme song, and Mahershala Ali, fresh off his second Oscar win, plays the baddie in it.

Something else that blighted my prediction record was that, in my blog, I'd anticipated that Quentin Tarantino's overrated Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood would be one of the most complained about films, due to its 18 rating, with the gripe being that it should have been a 15. My basis for this was that I'd seen quite a few tweets flying about from Tarantino fanboys, arguing with the BBFC and saying they lacked objectivity when it came to Tarantino, automatically rating all of his titles 18 without consideration of the content.

Given the BBFC mentioned Shazam!, Bumblebee and Holmes and Watson in their complaints summary, each of which only racked up four complaints apiece, and I saw about four tweets from disgruntled Tarantino fans, yet OUATIH was not mentioned in this summary, I can infer from this that the BBFC do not count tweets in their 149 complaints.

This is useful for me going forwards, when delineating between what the BBFC do and don't count as a complaint. It also gives a degree of the strength with which the OUATIH-ers felt about their stance, because sending a tweet is perceived to be 'easier' than sending an email to the BBFC (mainly because you have to go that extra length to dig out their e-mail address), so it shows that whilst the people on Twitter felt OUATIH should have been a 15, they didn't care enough to pen an email about it.

03. Gemini Man was one of those rare cases of the MF word being permitted in a 12A-rated film
You may remember, last June, when, on watching Black or White, I was quite surprised to see the BBFC had passed it 12, given it contained a single usage of 'motherf_cker', a word that they had long said in their podcasts was a 15-rated Americanism.

I wrote to them about it, and they explained that, following the 2013 guidelines, it was decided that they would relax their blanket rule that 'any usage of the MF word = automatic 15', but rather, judge each film on a case-by-case basis, which was why it was allowed in Black or White.

The BBFC have demonstrated this ability to judge individual cases, by passing Gemini Man 12A, when it too contained one use of the MF word. The BBFC justified this, saying 'While it is uncommon for this term to appear in content at this category, in this undirected and matter of fact context' allowed it being passed, uncommonly, at 12A.

The usage of the term in Black or White was also undirected, and not used aggressively. So Gemini Man and Black or White are cases where the BBFC's decisions with their ratings, five years apart, demonstrate some consistency with what their message in their email response to me.

04. The public is slightly uneasy with the shifting paradigm of sex references at the top end of 12A
Back in my prediction blog, my fifth guess (and more due to lack of imagination than anything, having not seen Shazam!, Alita: Battle Angel, or Bumblebee) for a film which caused the BBFC complaints was The Hustle, because I felt its sex references (including a reference to 'pegging') had no place in a 12A rated film, and were better-placed at 15.

Whilst this title wasn't in the summary of public feedback, Fighting With My Family and Holmes and Watson were, with five and four complaints apiece, due to their language and sex references. Whilst nine complaints in total is not huge, given the small absolute number of complaints last year, it is still worth a note, particularly as the gripe that the sexual dialogue in those films being too vulgar for a 12A, was what I'd highlighted about The Hustle.

I liked Fighting With My Family a lot (it's currently my second favourite film of 2019 after Parasite, although Parasite won’t be mentioned until the 2020 Annual Report because of its late UK release), and I do recall some crude verbal exchanges in the film, particularly when Florence Pugh's Paige was trash-talking her opponents. The BBFC explained their reasoning for rating the film 12A when there was arguably a case for it being rated 15 (the IFCO rated it 15A):
Although some are a little crude, these are infrequent and presented firmly within a comic context in an inspiring, heart-warming film with appeal to 12-14 year olds.
I take this point; Stephen Merchant's film was very inspirational, and the message at the core, about how Paige didn't need to change who she was to be a success, but rather, to thine self be true, was one the things that I loved about the movie.

I strongly believe that this sweet moral is an important thing to teach young teenagers, in this callous modern world of insane beauty standards that is leading to increasing volumes of young people with body dysmorphia issues.

This argument holds far less water when explaining The Hustle's 12A, given that film had no redeeming messages to speak of, but alas, as their email non-response to me shows, the BBFC have chosen 12A for The Hustle and they're not budging from that stance.

05. … So the 15 rating for Eighth Grade was prudent
If Holmes and Watson, Fighting With My Family and The Hustle were the BBFC pushing the boundaries of the 12A when it came to sex references, they knew better than to push their luck with Eighth Grade, rating it 15.

Just as with Fighting With My Family, there was an argument that there was likely to be a 12-14 year audience for Eighth Grade, given the protagonist is a 13-year-old, and the film has some salient lessons about young people's obsession with social media, and sexual consent. In their 'Advisory Panel on Children’s Viewing' section, the BBFC note that some members of the public felt the 15 rating deprived the film its intended audience.

However, the deciding factor for Eighth Grade was a scene where Kayla researches oral sex techniques online. The focus of the scene, the sustained nature of her doing online research and the fact that it's a 13 year old doing the researching (ostensibly, to learn how to give a BJ, given an earlier scene establishes that her crush expects to receive) would have massively confounded audience expectations had Eighth Grade been passed 12A. 

Whether thirteen year old girls actually google such things is beside the point; parents would have been horrified and cringed out to watch such a scene with their own kids. There would have certainly been complaints to the BBFC if Eighth Grade was passed 12A, with parents arguing that the appearance of such a scene normalised this kind of behaviour in young teens.

In this case, the BBFC were sensible to err on the side of prudence.

06. The BBFC received fewer than half the number of complaints in 2018
The BBFC only received 149 complaints in total in 2019, which was over 200 less than the previous year. The most complained about film, Joker, got 20 complaints, which was a lot less than 2018's most contentious decision, Red Sparrow, which got 64. 

The most complained about film of 2017 was Logan, also with 20 complaints, and I remarked then that that was scant; the fewest complaints for the most complained about film of a year preceding that was Mr Turner, all the way back in 2014. 

On first inspection, the gripe count going down by over 200 reflects favourably upon the BBFC, as it means they're getting it right more, if less people are writing in. If you peek behind the curtain, however, you'll note that there are a few other issues at play. 

2018 had a large volume of complaints because 1) Red Sparrow was massively wrongly rated, and the 64 complaints is a proportionate response to the lousiness of that decision and 2) there were targeted campaigns for A Northern Soul and Show Dogs' ratings, which inflated the amount of complaints that year. 

So, partly why 2019 looks so good compared to 2018, is that there were wider issues that somewhat artificially inflated the number of complaints in 2018. 

Another reason why complaints have gone down, is that Hollywood studios are increasingly aiming for certain ratings, and will make edits at the script stage, or in post-production, if they think there's any danger of them not obtaining the rating.

So when it comes to classifying the film, the decision's been made for the BBFC in a sense, as the director had shot their film with that rating in mind. (For example, studios will often target the PG-13/12A rating, and shoe-horn one f-word in to ensure they get it, even if said line of dialogue sounds forced – see Arrival and La La Land as two egregious cases).

And finally, I think cinemagoers grow, and are becoming increasingly cine-literate, knowing what to expect from certain ratings. The BBFC, who have an active social media presence and regularly conduct online surveys to get public feedback on contemporary film ratings, assist with this.

Their app and extended information for titles, whilst sometimes imperfect (a recent error I spotted was their insight for The Farewell which claimed Billi was visiting her maternal grandmother - it was her paternal grandmother), is a damn sight more informative than anything offered from film classification boards of any other country. And awareness of this function is increasing, so parents can research films thoroughly before seeing it, and if there sounds like there's something they'd rather their child not see, they can just nope out.

If you give people clear information and avoid obfuscation, the decision-making hat lies with them, and there's less to complain about. It's as simple as that.

07. U used to be Disney's default rating, but this is increasingly becoming PG instead
2019 saw three Disney live-action reboots: Dumbo, Aladdin and The Lion King. Each of these films' originals, which were in animated form, were U-rated. However, their live-action counterparts were rated PG.

The BBFC addressed this theme, saying: 'the ‘live action’ aesthetic contributing to a sense of increased tonal threat'. This tracks with some other recent live-action reboots, such as Beauty and the Beast, where the gorgeous 1991 version was a U, but the crap Emma Watson film was a PG.

Of the three 2019 Disney films, I only watched Aladdin, and concur with the PG rating. The sense of danger to Aladdin definitely felt more palpable, and when Jafar was granted wishes, those sequences were quite scary. I can also imagine, certain scenes in The Lion King, particularly the stampede scene, being way more intense to watch when it's CGI animals, rather than animated ones.

Interestingly, and appropriately, the segment of Jafar having his wishes granted lacked his creepy overtures towards Jasmine, which were present in the original U-rated version (such as requesting the Genie make Jasmine fall in love with him), and have not aged well. So I offer props to Guy Ritchie, who co-wrote and directed the (surprisingly good) 2019 version, for removing that.

(1996's The Hunchback of Notre Dame also features creepy sexual overtures from a man to a woman; Frollo to Esmeralda, and was also inappropriately rated U. But this was wrongly-classified in many countries, not just by the BBFC, and is a discussion for another time).

Finally, on the point of how several of historic Disney U-rated films translate to higher-rated films when re-made, the live-action Mulan has been rated 12A for moderate violence. This is not one but two ratings higher than its U-rated original, and illustrates that Disney execs permitted a certain level of grit in this version. This makes me more excited to see it.
08. The BBFC aren't taking any prisoners when it comes to solvent abuse
One of the main reasons I watched Netflix's Russian Doll, starring Natasha Lyonne and also featuring Dascha Polanco, was because it had two cast members from OITNB. One of the other main reasons I watched it was because it was rated 18, purely due to the 'drug misuse' of one episode.

So, when the scene transpired, I was left feeling very 'was that it?' All that happened in the scene was Lyonne's Nadia huffs glue from a paper bag. The shot was extremely fleeting - practically blink and you'll miss it - and I don't recall there being any verbal cues that it was glue in the paper bag, so some viewers might not have even realised what she was doing.

I found this scene getting rated 18 - causing the entire season, which up until then was perfectly fine at 15, to be rated 18 - extremely draconic, and thought it inconsistent with the BBFC's treatment of other drugs, such as cocaine, which are often depicted glamorously in 15 rated films (think: any gross-out R-rated comedy where there's a party in frat house, e.g. Bad Neighbours).

By Russian Doll getting an 18 rating, I also thought it mis-sold the content of the show overall, particularly given the relentlessly violent likes of Narcos, or OITNB which runs the entire gamut of sex, swearing, violence, drugs, and prison brutality, are both only 15-rated shows.

In their 18 section of the Annual Report, the BBFC discuss Russian Doll's rating, saying 'Our policy is to restrict depictions of solvent abuse to the 18 classification, unless there is a very clear indication of the dangers of such behaviour, which can lead to death.' This shines a light slightly on the starkness of Russian Doll's rating. The likes of cocaine and marijuana, which have been depicted as fun and consequence-free in 15-rated films, are still illegal. Whereas access to solvents is a lot easier to come by.

So, whilst I still think Russian Doll's 18 is a bit harsh, I can understand why the BBFC have taken this tough stance on glue-sniffing.


How about you, BBFC nerds? What were the things that stood out to you about the 2019 BBFC Annual Report?


dementedkirby said...

Nice post! Also, I particularly liked their explanation of why The Kindergarten Teacher (an interesting and very tense psychological thriller) got a 12A rating. By comparison, it was rated R here in the States for 2 f-bombs and some nudity in a sex scene (which also netted it a 15A in Ireland), yet neither the MPAA nor the IFCO managed to factor in the complex psychological issues in that film. In contrast, the BBFC did. Don’t get me wrong, I think the R rating was well deserved, but not for the reasons the MPAA thinks (I haven’t been disturbed by a film’s tone this much since One Hour Photo), and a 15 would have probably been more prudent, but it’s great to at least see the BBFC’s thought processes even if I disagree with the rating itself. The same cannot be said for the MPAA at all.

Emma said...

Hi DementedKirby, thanks for the message! I haven't seen The Kindergarten Teacher but I am always interested in cases where the BBFC gave it the lowest rating out of them, US and Ireland. I will seek it out if I can. Thanks for reading!

JamsterYT said...

Hi, will you do another BBFC post at some point?

Emma said...

Hi Jamster - I certainly have lots of BBFC-related thoughts brewing in my mind! I just didn't write anything because I didn't know there was a readership for my BBFC blogs!!

Anonymous said...

La sofferenza è il risultato del prendere la vita sul serio; la beatitudine è il risultato del gioco. Prendi la vita come un gioco, divertiti. E' tutto come nei film.