New Guidelines 2000
In 1999, the BBFC embarked on an extensive consultation process to gauge public opinion before the compilation of new Guidelines for age ratings. The process involved a series of public presentations across the UK, two Citizens' Juries, surveys and questionnaires. The film and video industry and other interested groups also contributed their views. The major outcomes were that the depiction of drugs and drug use was the cause of greatest concern to parents, as was the issue of violence in the lower age ratings. Use of bad language on screen provoked a range of responses, reflecting varying tolerances in the general public. Portrayal of sexual activity, however, caused less concern than before. Details of this consultation process are available in the document Sense and Sensibilities: Public Opinion.
In 1999, the BBFC received three European films that challenged its standards on sex. These were The Idiots, Romance and Seul Contre Tous. All three films contained scenes of unsimulated sex that would not normally be acceptable at 18. In the case of Seul Contre Tous it was decided that the images in question were too explicit - and of too great a duration - to be acceptable at 18 and the images were removed. However, in the cases of Romance and The Idiots, it was decided that the comparative brevity of the images, combined with the serious intentions of the films, meant that both films could be rated 18 without cuts. This was in line with earlier 'exceptional' decisions in the cases of WR - Mysteries of the Organism (rated X uncut in 1972) and L'Empire des Sens (rated 18 uncut in 1991). However, as the BBFC moved into the new millennium it soon became clear that these were not to be isolated examples. A whole generation of European film makers seemed determined to push the boundaries of what was sexually acceptable on the screen.
Fortunately, the 1999-2000 consultation exercise had revealed a general desire on the part of the public that the BBFC should relax its attitudes to sex at 15 and 18. Accordingly, the new Guidelines stated that real sex may be permitted at 18 in the future, provided that the images were exceptionally justified by context (ie not purely there for titillation). This policy was put to the test by a number of films from 2000 onwards, including Intimacy, Dog Days and The Piano Teacher, all of which were rated 18 uncut. However, once sexual violence entered the equation, things became more complicated.
Baise-moi (2001) included not only scenes of explicit sex but also a strong and disturbing rape scene, which incorporated explicit detail. Although the BBFC was prepared to accept the explicit sex elsewhere in the film, and judged that the rape scene was sufficiently aversive to be acceptable, the use of explicit images during the assault itself was considered to lend a pornographic quality to the scene that might have the effect of arousing some viewers. A single cut was therefore required.
The issue of sexual violence was also at the heart of an appeal against the BBFC's decision on The Last House On The Left. Rejected by the BBFC for cinema release in 1974 and again in 2000 (after the distributor declined to make cuts), Wes Craven's notorious 'video nasty' was submitted for video/DVD release in 2001. When the BBFC requested that cuts be made to reduce scenes of eroticised sexual violence (linking sex together with violence in a potentially harmful way), the distributor refused to comply and took the BBFC's decision to the independent Video Appeals Committee (VAC). The VAC universally upheld the BBFC's decision to require cuts, providing a robust endorsement of its strict policy on sexual violence. In 2008, the film was submitted uncut, and after various viewings and much deliberation, it was rated 18 uncut, because the possibility of harm posed to viewers or to society as a result of viewing the work was thought to be much reduced.
In June 2001, governmental responsibility for film and DVD age ratings moved from the Home Office to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). Ofcom became the new regulator for television, radio, telecommunications and wireless communications services. The regulation of films, videos and DVDs did not fall under Ofcom's remit and remained the responsibility of the BBFC. The BBFC is still the only regulator which regulates material before it is seen by the public.
In 2002, the new 12A rating replaced the 12 rating for film only, and allows children under 12 to see a 12A film, provided that they are accompanied throughout by an adult. The decision to introduce this new rating was taken after a pilot scheme and research was conducted to assess public reaction. The new rating was also conditional on the provision and publication of Consumer Advice (now known as BBFCinsight) for 12A films. The BBFC considers 12A films to be suitable for audiences OVER the age of 12, but acknowledges that parents know best whether their children younger than 12 can cope with a particular film. The first 12A film was The Bourne Identity. For more information about the 12A rating see the Spider-Man case study.
While the BBFC had been producing Consumer Advice for films for publication on the website, it was the introduction of the 12A rating which saw its appearance on film posters, TV advertisements and in cinema listings for 12A films. A single line of information about the film's content indicated what viewers could expect to encounter in the film and therefore why it was given its rating. This was particularly helpful for parents deciding what films are suitable for their children, and in particular whether to take children younger than 12 to a 12A film. In 2004, the majority of film distributors agreed to include the Consumer Advice in publicity for all films. Consumer Advice was further developed to include detailed paragraphs about the films' content in terms of issues, to provide viewers with detailed information on what to expect. Consumer Advice is now known as BBFCinsight and more information about it can be found here.
In late 2004, David Cooke was appointed BBFC Director following Robin Duval's retirement. The first controversial film David Cooke had to consider was Michael Winterbottom's 9 Songs, described by some commentators as 'the most sexually explicit film in the history of British cinema'. Whilst this description might well be accurate, the BBFC's decision to rate it 18 uncut was in line with previous decisions on various European films. The BBFC's Guidelines do not distinguish between films on the basis of their language or country of origin. However, given that the film was in the English language and had been made by a well known British film-maker, it achieved a wider release and attracted more attention than previous explicit films such as Romance and The Idiots.
On 9 February 2005, the BBFC published a new set of Guidelines based on an even more extensive consultation process than the one which resulted in the 2000 Guidelines. Over 11,000 people contributed their views on the BBFC's Guidelines - 7,000 more than in 1999/2000. Public support for the BBFC went up from 59% in 2000 to 63% in 2004. The outcomes of the research can be found in BBFC Guideline Research - Public Opinion and the BBFC Guidelines 2005.
2003 saw the launch of Children's BBFC - cbbfc - an educational website created by the BBFC with the aim of helping primary school children better understand film and DVD age ratings. The sbbfc (Students' BBFC) website was launched in June 2005. Whilst aimed primarily at Media and Film Studies students and their teachers, the site holds appeal to anyone interested in the subject of media regulation and the history of censorship in the UK. In late 2012 the content of these sites were moved over to the BBFC's new website.
In 2006, landmark 18 ratings were awarded to two high-profile films containing explicit images of real sex. The first, Destricted, is an exploration of the links between sex and pornography by seven well-known artists, including Matthew Barney, Larry Clark and Sam Taylor-Wood. Shortbus, a US comedy about the sexual exploits of a group of friends in New York, also contained real sex. The BBFC felt that both works contained contextual justification for the presence of the explicit images and the decision to award 18 ratings met with approval from the film and DVD industry. The Observer’s Philip French stated that ‘The award of 18 certificates by the BBFC to Shortbus and Destricted has brought close the abolition of censorship, but not of classification.’
The latest film in the 007 franchise, Casino Royale, received critical and commercial success and a 12A rating from the BBFC. The film was seen on advice and the distributor was asked to reduce the impact of a torture scene in order to obtain the requested 12A rating.
2007 saw the introduction of Parents’ BBFC, a website designed to help parents and guardians make what they consider to be sensible choices for their children’s viewing. The website provided up to date information about films, DVDs and video games in the junior categories, offering a brief plot summary and details of why the film, DVD or video game received its U, PG or 12A/12 rating. The purpose of the website was to take the guesswork out of making an informed decision about what is suitable viewing for any particular child, a decision best made by a parent or guardian.
All this information can now be found on the main BBFC website in the form of BBFCinsight for all films and DVDs, which started out in 2007 as Extended Classification Information or ECI. BBFCinsight allows the public to access information intended to add detail to the one line of content information already carried by posters and other sources, for people who prefer to have a clear idea of the content of a film or DVD.
During 2007, the BBFC took the decision to reject the video game Manhunt 2 because of its callousness and sadism. Another (modified) version of the game was submitted and this too was rejected for the same reasons. The distributor of the game appealed this decision to the Video Appeals Committee (VAC), which found in favour of the distributor. The BBFC was granted leave for a Judicial Review, following which the judge required the VAC to reconsider its decision. A final decision relating to Manhunt 2 was made in March 2008, when the VAC again ordered again that the video game be rated 18 uncut. The BBFC had no choice but to rate the game accordingly. Interestingly, earlier in 2007, the BBFC published the results of some independent research into how video games are played. You can find out more about this here.
On 23 June 2009, the BBFC published its a new set of Guidelines based on another detailed public consultation exercise conducted in 2008-2009. Over 8,700 people contributed their views on the BBFC's Guidelines in the form of lengthy questionnaires and focus groups. 82% of the general public felt that the BBFC was ‘effective’, which is around the same figure as that produced by the 2004 research. The outcomes of the research can be found in BBFC Guideline Research - Public Opinion and the BBFC Guidelines 2009. The next set of BBFC Guidelines to be published were researched in 2013 and published a year later. Details of the 2014 Guidelines and extensive public consultation that underpin them can be found here.