Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Film rating and review in the US and UK

I've been listening to Mark Kermode's film reviews for a few years now, and one of the things that I find really fascinating is the British perspective on ratings and review of films. In the U.S. the MPAA has a relatively secretive process by which films are reviewed, and that process has come under fire for decades now as being too lax in many areas and overly restrictive in others. I never really thought there was much wrong with the MPAA until I saw how the British system worked. Now I wonder how we became so entrenched with what is clearly a second-rate system.

Here's how their system works: The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) is an independent organization which represents the film industry, somewhat like the MPAA. However, they publish general details of the selection criteria and general makeup of their "examiners" staff and have an extensive library of reviews which go into extreme detail on each of their decisions. Parents who want to determine if a film is suitable for a child can easily scan these detailed descriptions and come to their own conclusions based on their own values. This also gives the average moviegoer and citizen the opportunity to see how a film was judged and what criteria are being used to assign ratings. If a film receives a restrictive rating that moviegoers think was incorrect, they can provide detailed feedback to the BBFC, responding point-by-point to the ruling. Another interesting difference between the MPAA and the BBFC is that the MPAA is a film industry lobby and engages in a number of anti-piracy efforts. They are supported by their industry members. The BBFC, on the other hand, is a ratings board only, and are supported by the fees they charge to review films which are based on running time (and thus the amount of their time spent watching the film).

Let's look at an example. If I go to the MPAA's Web site, and select "Find a Film Rating" I'm sent to "" a Web site which the MPAA runs, which says the following about linking to their site, "You may not link to any portion of the Site from any other web site without first obtaining the specific written permission of the MPAA, which permission may be withheld in the MPAA's sole and absolute discretion." You can find that on the site's terms of use page. The site is entirely Shockwave Flash, and does not allow the selection or copying of text. If you search for "Thor" you see several titles, including the recent "Thor (2011)" which has next to it, "Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence." That's it. There's no other details on the review process. If you click on the title, you're taken to the IMDB, a commercial site run by which lists the film-makers and sometimes lists plot details, but more often than not, these details are not focused on potentially objectionable content and may be blank until a film is officially released or longer.

By contrast, the BBFC has a plain old, standard HTML page which has no linking restrictions and which allows copy-and-paste just like any other normal Web page. They have an entry for Thor 3D and Thor 2D. I selected Thor 3D. At first, you are only given a simple, "Contains moderate fantasy violence" but there is a link with a disclaimer that tells you that clicking the link will show the full review with potential spoilers for the film. That extended review, which I include here only for comparison, and with any spoilers edited out, is as follows:

THOR is a fantasy action film based on the Marvel Comics superhero. Thor is a powerful but arrogant warrior and heir to the throne of Asgard. However, his reckless actions spoiler and he is spoiler. This gives spoiler, an opportunity to spoiler. The film was classified '12A' for moderate fantasy violence.

The BBFC's Guidelines at '12A'/'12' state 'Moderate violence is allowed but should not dwell on detail. There should be no emphasis on injuries or blood, but occasional gory moments may be permitted if justified by the context'. The film includes several scenes of moderate violence, including kicks, punches, and a couple of headbutts. However, the violence is generally fantastical in nature and most commonly involves either superheros or non-human characters (eg the spoiler). The only fight scene of note that is set in the real world occurs when spoiler. The blows delivered are quite heavy, featuring crunchy sound effects, but there is no discernible blood or injury detail. Sight of impacts is hidden and the action is extremely rapid, with the emphasis firmly on Thor's attempts to spoiler. Earlier in the film, there is a fight scene between spoiler, during which spoiler is stabbed spoiler. The end of the spoiler, which is covered in blood, emerges from spoiler's back, after which spoiler is carried off by spoiler. However, spoiler recovers quickly and this brief moment of bloody detail occurs within a clearly fantastical context. The film has a generally light-hearted tone throughout and this helps to diminish the impact of the violence.

THOR also includes scenes of moderate threat. Spoiler are potentially scary and intimidating. However, the threatening sequences, which are neither frequent nor sustained, are broken up by other material, including comic interludes. The film also contains some very mild language, including the terms 'dumbass', 'God' and 'hell'.

From that, I could imagine many parents deciding that they thought the film was unacceptable for their children, while many others would decide the exact opposite. The point is that they would have that choice.

In a perfect world, I'd like to see the MPAA bring BBFC-style transparency to their process and provide:
  • A stand-alone group which is funded by fees charged to review films
  • Hiring guidelines for reviewers and other staff
  • Demographic and industry background information about reviewers (in general terms, not per-reviewer)
  • A freely quotable list of their reviews with a reasonable terms of use policy
  • Complete details of reviews that allow parents and others to make their own decisions
I don't think any of that is pie-in-the-sky thinking, and if the MPAA can't manage to make such changes, then perhaps it's time to pass the torch to a less industry-insider-controlled body.

It's not a ratings board's job to come up with decisions that everyone will agree with. That's impossible. Instead, it should be their job to provide the public with enough information on which to make an informed decision about what constitutes appropriate entertainment for themselves and those for whom they are responsible. The BBFC may have its faults, but it does essentially that. The MPAA does not.


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