Same Difference? - A Comparison of the British and American film and DVD Rating Systems | British Board of Film Classification
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Same Difference? - A Comparison of the British and American film and DVD Rating Systems

Date 04/03/2011

The American film industry is a dominant presence in the cultural life of UK citizens. By the time many British movie fans become adults, they are likely to have seen far more films from the United States than from any other country, including the United Kingdom. But do we watch these movies at the same age that our American cousins are allowed to see them?

Many people – especially children – are unwilling to read subtitles on film, so this exposure of British viewers to American films is partly a result of the shared English language, which makes it instantly easier for fans to access the same movies. However, as George Bernard Shaw is credited with stating, the British and the Americans are ‘two nations divided by a common language’. So how similar – or different – are our respective film rating systems?

The legal position on film classification

United Kingdom

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is an independent, non-governmental body. It was set up in 1912 and has been classifying cinema films since 1913. Originally known as the British Board of Film Censors, it was created by the film industry as an independent body to bring uniformity to the classification of film nationally. BBFC categories are used to provide guidance to the UK’s local authorities, who grant licences to the cinemas in their area.

When a cinema applies for a licence, it must include a condition requiring the admission of children to any film to normally be restricted in accordance with BBFC classification categories. However, statutory powers on film remain with the local councils, which have the authority to overrule any of the board's decisions. They can pass rejected films, ban films that have been passed by the BBFC, waive cuts, institute new cuts, or alter categories for films exhibited, using their own licensing jurisdiction – although in practice this power is rarely exercised.

The BBFC is a non-profit organisation, funded solely by standard charges (approved by the relevant Government department) made to film producers/distributors who submit movies for certification, based on the running time of each film.

In line with the consistent findings of the BBFC’s public consultations and The Human Rights Act 1998, at 18 the BBFC’s guideline concerns will not normally override the principle that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment with some exceptions.

The United States

The US movie rating system was created in 1968, as a replacement to the Hays Production Code (a basic approval or disapproval of a movie, without any gradation to describe the movie's content). The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) joined forces with the National Association of Theater Owners and the International Film Importers & Distributors of America to jointly devise a rating system to ‘help parents protect their children from mature material’. The members of the US board work for the Classification and Rating Administration (CARA), an independent division of the MPAA, which – in common with the BBFC – is funded by fees charged to producers/distributors for the rating of their films.

Legally, the US rating system is entirely voluntary - no film maker is forced to submit a film to the board for rating, but the vast majority of producers/distributors opt to do so. Signatory members of the MPAA, which represent the major studios, have agreed to submit all of their theatrical releases for rating.

Unlike the UK system, any American producer/distributor who wishes to bypass the US rating system is free to go to the market without any rating – or instead to use any description or symbol they choose, as long as it cannot be confused with the widely recognised symbols that are the federally registered (ie. trademarked) certification marks of the MPAA, and may not be used by any other individual or organisation. The US rating board is not associated with the US. government, and its film ratings have no legal meaning.

In practice, most American filmmakers apply for a formal rating, as US theatre chains are usually reluctant to show an unrated film. Movies that are released without a rating are usually small, independent films, foreign films or direct-to-video films, and other types of films that not expected to receive wide distribution.

DVD/video classification

The United Kingdom

In the UK, the BBFC has been classifying videos/DVDs since the passing of the Video Recordings Act in 1984. Even if a film has already been given a category for cinematic viewing, the BBFC will separately classify the DVD version of it, to be sold or rented. It is possible for a DVD of a film to have a different classification to the version shown in the cinema.

A DVD rating is based on the highest rating of any extra included with it – so sometimes the presence of strong language, or stronger violence/sex than in the original film appearing in a blooper reel, deleted scene or audio commentary, can push a film up a category. On occasion, a distributor may have specifically chosen to cut a film to achieve a lower category for cinema viewing, but then wishes to release it uncut on DVD, where it is likely to receive a higher category.

Very infrequently, an identical cinema and video film might receive a different category, due to the application of the Video Recordings Act 1984, which requires BBFC examiners to consider the possibility of younger children viewing DVD material in the home. It also requires examiners to pay special attention to the issue of potential harm, portrayals of criminal activity and illegal drug use and dangerous imitable techniques.

The United States

Unlike in the UK, there is no specifically separate, formal rating of DVD formatted films (or TV series etc) in the US. Instead, the same category applied by the US rating system to a movie shown in cinemas is automatically extended to the film when it is released on video/DVD. If DVD extras are added, the distributor is obliged by CARA to add wording stating the original film rating and the fact that the DVD includes additional, unrated material.

As mentioned in the previous section, most unrated US films are those with a perceived minority appeal, or straight-to-video movies, not shown in any cinema. However, the Video Software Dealers Association (the major trade association for video retailers in the US), has adopted a policy which strongly endorses the observance of the voluntary movie rating system by video retailers.

Who rates the films?

The structure of the examining boards in the US and the UK has several similarities – such as the fact that both were set up by their respective film industries, but operate independently of these bodies. The full time examiners in both countries (around 16 people in the UK and 12 in the US) are not required to have any specific qualifications to train for the role, but are drawn from a variety of backgrounds, in an attempt to provide as wide a selection of views as possible, and represent the diversity of their nations. The BBFC is based in London, and CARA in Los Angeles – both national centres of film production.

However there are some differences. One of the stated requirements of examiners on the US board is that they be parents, which is not mandatory at the BBFC (although several do have children of various ages). US raters must have children aged between five and fifteen when they join the board, and leave when their children reach the age of twenty one, or when they have served a maximum of seven years. BBFC examiners have permanent contracts.

Other differences are in the appointment of senior positions. The BBFC’s Director and Presidents are chosen by a Council of Management, whose members are excluded from classification decisions and policy, and must have no actual or perceived conflict of interest in relation to them. In the US, the President of the MPAA chooses the Chairman of the ratings board, but thereafter the President does not have any involvement in the decisions made by the board.

UK films are seen initially by a team of two people, then further teams and senior personnel as required, with the Director and the Presidents making the final decision on any contentious works. The entire US board sees most films, and vote for a category – with a two thirds majority usually deciding the outcome.

Should a producer/distributor disagree with a category awarded to their work, the appeals process is, again, very different in the two nations. In the UK, the first course of action is a ‘reconsideration’ process at the BBFC. Should this fail to satisfy the film producer, then the only recourse is for them to appeal separately to the Licensing Department of each and every local authority in which they wish to show their film, as there is no unified appeals process. In addition, many councils will not accept appeals directly from distributors but only from the cinema(s) in question, because it is the cinemas they license, rather than the distributors or individual films. Video/DVDs and video games have a separate appeal board (the Video Appeals Committee), which has the authority to overturn BBFC decisions.

In the US, the film Appeals Board consists of 14 to 18 movie industry professionals – plus representatives of both the Catholic and Methodist Christian churches – who can all vote on whether to change a decision on a movie to be shown in cinemas. Any members who have a perceived conflict of interest in hearing the appeal of any particular work are obliged to declare it, and exclude themselves from that process.

The film categories

Both the UK and the US appear to have roughly similar age intervals between the five main film categories that may be awarded (both have ‘PG’; ‘12A’ in the UK matches with ‘PG-13’ in the US, for example, or ‘18’ and ‘NC-17’). However, these similarities can be deceptive, are the classifications are handled in quite different ways by both the public and the cinema theatres.

In overview, the categories are as follows:

The United Kingdom

U: Universal, suitable for all

PG: Parental Guidance

12/12A: Suitable for 12 years and over

15: Suitable for 15 years and over

18: Suitable only for adults

The United States

G: General audiences
PG: Parental guidance suggested
PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned
R: Restricted
NC-17: No-one 17 and under admitted

At first comparison, it might appear that the American system of film rating is more liberal than that used in the UK, in that younger viewers are technically allowed to see higher rated films in US theatres.

In British cinemas, parents/adults accompanying children are not allowed to take youngsters below 12 years olds into any film rated higher than 12A. However, in the US, adults are permitted to take children of any age up to 17 years old to see a film that has been passed as high as R (‘Restricted’), although parents are ‘ … strongly urged to find out more about R-rated motion pictures in determining their suitability for their children. Generally, it is not appropriate for parents to bring their young children with them to R-rated motion pictures’. However, despite this freedom for parents to choose to take their children to a movie rated as high as R - once the same film is for sale in a DVD format, many US retailers will refuse to sell R rated works to anybody who cannot prove that they are an adult.

The only film category that youngsters are expressly prohibited from seeing in US cinemas is the NC-17 – the rough equivalent of the UK 18 rating. However, a major difference between these two adult-only categories is their commerciality. Despite the US rating board stating that NC-17 does not mean “obscene” or “pornographic” in the common or legal meaning of those words, and should not be construed as a negative judgment in any sense. The rating simply signals that the content is appropriate only for an adult audience’, distributors often perceive the awarding of this category as commercial death at the box office. They will frequently fight the decision, and often make as many cuts as is deemed required by the board, to achieve the much more financially desirable R rating, and thus reach a far wider audience.

Many large US retailers refuse to stock NC-17 video/DVD works at all, although some critics of this policy have noted the irony that the same stores will sometimes sell films that have not been rated at all – and which would probably have received NC-17, had the distributor put the film forward for formal classification. In practice, if a film is given NC-17, many distributors have chosen to opt to ‘surrender’ the rating. This means the work reverts to being ‘unrated’. Larry Clark’s Kids is an example of a film that did this.

The situation is very different in the UK, where an 18 rating is certainly not perceived as disadvantageous, or a bar to commercial success for a film (although it is true that more distributors do target 15 and 12A audiences). Indeed, many makers of horror/thriller type works hope to receive an 18 classification, almost as a ‘badge of honour’ to validate their claims of the high level of ‘scariness’ of their movie.

In addition, a retail or rental outlet would not refuse to stock an 18 rated DVD or Blu-ray, and no cinema chains in the UK refuse to show 18 films.

Public involvement in the rating systems

The classification system that produces the various categories in the UK and the US is quite differently constructed, expressed and researched in both markets.

The United Kingdom

In line with certain UK legislation and the requirements of the Human Rights Act 1998, there is a requirement to make clear the process of classification, and the criteria used for it. This is fulfilled by the publication of the BBFC Guidelines, the latest set of which was published in June 2009 (in print and online), and was the result of extensive consultation, incorporating the views of almost 9,000 members of the viewing public over 16 years old.

The BBFC websites include comprehensive information on every aspect of the classification process – plus all newly released films - for use by parents, students, teachers and the general public. In addition, the BBFC funds a dedicated education department that organises numerous presentations and workshop sessions on classification and censorship for interested parties, plus personal interviews where possible with members of the British media, and media students.

Periodic research is conducted by independent bodies commissioned by the BBFC, to measure public opinion of the effectiveness of the ratings system.

The BBFC also publishes information about any intervention, for example cuts made, to works on its website and gives detailed information of both cuts, and the rationale behind them to distributors.

The United States

The US ratings board outlines the level of issues allowed for each category on its dedicated CARA website (as well as the MPAA website). These criteria are produced, and periodically reviewed, by the board members themselves, on behalf of the parents of America.

To gauge public perception of their rating programme, and measure approval of their work, the US board commissions annual, nationwide polls, conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, New Jersey. This asks the American public to state how useful they find the ratings in helping them make decisions about what movies their children see.

In 2006, American director Kirby Dick released the full-length documentary movie This Film is Not Yet Rated, which aimed to clarify the working methods of the US film rating boards, claiming that the process was not sufficiently transparent or publicly accountable. In the film, he questions the system of deciding which works receive R and which instead are given the less commercially viable NC-17, and makes some unfavourable comparisons with the UK film ratings system – especially where sex, sexuality and nudity appear in a film.

Differences in classification decisions

A BBFC examiner who is about to classify a film will be aware if the movie has already been given a formal rating in the US. Whilst this can be a useful guide to a film’s intended audience, it is not a restriction on the BBFC, who are free to award whichever category they feel is most appropriate for a UK audience. There is also the fact to consider that a film may have been cut to achieve a certain category in the US, and it is not always clear whether the BBFC are classifying an original, uncut version, or the final, edited US version. Therefore a film is always taken on its own merits, in how it meets the criteria laid out in the published BBFC Guidelines.

Once a category has been decided, the UK board adds a short phrase of BBFCinsight that appears on the film’s advertising alongside the certificate. In addition, The BBFC produces an expanded version that contains much more detail about the content of every film that we classify.

In the US, the similar short form of explanation is referred to as a ‘rating reason’.

Sex and nudity

In general terms, it appears that the US ratings board, representing the views of the American public, has a lower tolerance for nudity or sex scenes appearing in lower rated films. Films that may be awarded a 15 in the UK for these issues are occasionally those which were cut for R in the US, and there are some examples of works passed NC-17 and then cut by distributors to get an R, but which were given 18 uncut here. Monsters Ball was passed 15 uncut, but cut for R, and Where The Truth Lies and American Psycho were both passed 18 uncut in the UK but cut down from NC-17 to R in the US.

One particularly notable example of the difference between the two ratings systems is Mike Leigh’s comic biography of composers Gilbert and Sullivan, Topsy-Turvy (classified in 1991): this was rated R in the US, because of a single, comic scene of two topless women impersonating marionettes in a historical burlesque type routine, in what might possibly be a Paris brothel. The rating reason provided was ‘A scene of risqué nudity’. The BBFC decided to pass the same film at 12 (there was no 12A until 2002) with BBFCinsight of ‘Contains single instances of nudity, drug use and strong language’. The BBFC considered that the context of the burlesque world inhabited by the composers in their line of work, and the lack of any overtly sexual overtone, allowed this scene to be contained at a lower category, given it was an isolated incident in a work not aimed at children.

Violence and tone

Conversely, the UK public seems to have a lower tolerance for aggression, or a dark and disturbing tone in a lower category film – even with an absence of overt violence and injuries. Recent examples of difference in rating for these issues include the superhero movie Hancock (classified in the UK in 2008) starring Will Smith: after some cuts were made, this was passed at PG-13 in the US for ‘Some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and language’. The distributor wanted a 12A for the same version in the UK, but substantial further cuts to violence and hostile language were required by the for BBFC to achieve this category, together with the overlaying of more upbeat music for the climactic fight scene, to signify victory for the hero, and soften the tone and impact of the violence. The final 12A version carried BBFCinsight of ‘Contains moderate violence, strong and aggressive language and crude humour’.

However, sometimes the BBFC considers that a dark or aggressive tone is so pervasive throughout a film that is impossible to just trim scenes or moments here and there, to achieve the desired lower category. The horror films Cloverfield (classified in 2008), I Am Legend (2007) were passed at PG-13 in the US, primarily for ‘intense scenes of action violence’. These deliberately employed the kind of horror tropes seen in more adult horror films, such as shaky handheld camerawork, and unsettling camera angles, with the aim of creating a disturbing and scary tone. It was deemed that both these movies were incapable of being appropriately edited to obtain the requested 12A, without completely changing them into different films. The strong, sustained threat and menace, gloom/bleakness and lack of a happy resolution that might traditionally be expected in lower rated films, meant that the BBFC decided that 15 was the most suitable category, to avoid confounding public expectations of 12A films.

On other occasions, individual violent acts or scenes may be fairly moderate in a film, but the consistent and cumulative nature of it can contribute to an overall effect that takes a movie to ‘15’ in the UK. Die Hard 4.0 (2007) is an example of this type of film, given PG-13 in the US for ‘Intense sequences of violence and action, language and a brief sexual situation’, it was classified at 15 here, for ‘Frequent action violence and one use of strong language’.


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