Monday, May 04, 2015

AUDIENCE BBFC 18 rating usually a disaster but not Fifty Shades

I've raised this point in several blog posts, and frequently in lessons, so a short post to emphasize quite an important point. As teens and tweens are the key cinema-going audience, producers and distributors will generally seek to avoid 18-ratings (the US, MPAA, equivalent of R means that the biggest DVD retailer, Wal-Mart, won't even stock it).

There are always exceptions, and Fifty Shades of Grey was one where anything lower would have been distinctly off-putting, given audience expectations of realistic sex scenes:
Whatever happens, Fifty Shades looks absolutely certain to overtake The Wolf of Wall Street (£22.7m lifetime) to become the biggest ever 18-certificate title in this market. This is a movie where the 18 certificate can be considered in no way a hindrance – in fact, audiences would have been rightly suspicious of a Fifty Shades film that won a 15 rating. Usually, film distributors push for the lowest possible rating, but it’s easy to envision Universal asking the question of the UK censor: what exactly do we need to include to secure an 18?
(Charles Gant, Feb 2015)
There are very few 18-rated Working Title films; contrarily, there are very few PG or 12 Warp films. Working Title generally aim for a mass, mainstream market, and thus mostly avoid 18-ratings. They sacrifice realism to do so, something Warp are less willing to do. If WT present an idealised representation of the UK, Warp tend to present a grittier, rougher representation, with the very title of Meadows' This is England arguably a direct riposte to the Notting Hill, Bridget Jones (etc) depiction of a twee middle-class Britain, as viewed by Richard Curtis (and savagely satirised in the Curtisland animation).

Tyrannosaur would have been a much lesser film if the central protagonist didn't use the 'c-word', and the audience weren't shocked by the brutal opening scene; if produced to fit a 15-rating it would not have been the critical success it was. Nonetheless, it was not a big box office hit.

This is England was produced to be a 15-rated film and Warp were appalled when they got the 18-rating. This seems to reflect a pattern with the BBFC of being harsher on Indie films. Ken Loach's Sweet Sixteen also got an unexpected 18-rating; both are Indies centred on working-class communities and both feature strong language (in Sweet Sixteen it was the teen actors who actually scripted the dialogue, through improvisation). Neither was subsequently a box office hit.

Working Title's The World's End, like Shaun of the Dead before it, pushed the boundaries with violence and language, but still avoided the dreaded 18. Perhaps the most notorious example was The Dark Knight Rises, given a mere 12 despite the very dark tone and violent, gorey content. Studios getting preferential treatment? Possibly.

In both these Indie and studio examples there is another factor: the power of every local authority across the UK to change BBFC ratings within their own area. Many up-rated Dark Knight to 15, while many also down-rated This is England to a 15.

You can read more on this on other posts; for example, use the BBFC tag to read about World's End and Tyrannosaur in more detail.

The BBFC website is a great resource; as secretive as they once were, now they provide details on the rating of every film. Here's an excerpt from their entry on This Is England:
The key factors which therefore placed This is England at 18, rather than 15 are:
  • The violence is directed against a vulnerable character – Milky is easily the most gentle of all the characters, vulnerable throughout because of his race and lulled into a false sense of security in the scene leading up to the attack
  • The violence and language are unexpected and shocking – the scene starts very calmly; the other characters don't realise what's about to happen
  • The scene is distressing – we see most of the film through Shaun's eyes and he is especially upset and confused by what is happening
  • Repeated aggressive use of the word 'c**t' along with racist terms within the scene.
Research for the BBFC Guidelines showed the public support for restricting the strongest language, when it is aggressive, to the highest category. BBFC Guidelines at the time the film was classified stated that ‘the strongest terms (eg 'cunt') will be acceptable only where justified by the context. Continued aggressive use of the strongest language is unlikely to be acceptable’. 
In the BBFC’s 2005 Guidelines research there was extensive discussion of very strong language, and the factors which the public felt made that language inappropriate in works available to children. The combination of very strong language and violence was regarded as particularly worrying. Veronica Guerin was another example of this concern. The film was rated 18 because it includes a scene where a drug baron beats an unarmed female reporter whilst calling her a ‘c**t’.
As with all works there was discussion over the classification of This is England and a variety of opinions were taken into account. The work was seen several times, and in the end by most of the BBFC’s examiners, the BBFC’s Director and the Head of Policy. The arguments for passing the film 15 were carefully considered, including the appeal of the film for a younger audience, but the clear arguments for 18 were stronger.
Director Shane Meadows spoke publicly about his disappointment that the film was restricted to an adult audience as he felt it had strong messages and appeal for a younger audience. Some local authorities overruled the BBFC certificate granting the film a 15, in particular the local authority where the young lead actor in the film grew up.
Other films that star actors who were too young to watch the work in the cinema include The Exorcist, The Sixth Sense and Sweet Sixteen.

This could easily have gotten an 18 rating for its language and violence, but got a 15, a big factor in the film's ultimate box office success. Just as the Dark Knight was treated leniently because of its cartoon-like treatment of violence, the comedy element was cited as diminishing the impact of violence in this film, and the language too. An excerpt of their explanation:
The film was submitted for classification and released in 2007. The examiners viewing the film noted the main issues as :
• several uses of strong language
• two uses of very strong language
• violence / horror

The repeated use of strong language immediately leads to a 15 classification. There are some 15 uses of variants of ‘f**k'. More unusual at 15 are two uses of very strong language, ‘c**t’, which normally indicates an 18 rated film. The BBFC accepts that this word can be highly offensive to members of the public, so careful consideration was given to the context in which this language appeared. Where the word is used aggressively and repeatedly in dialogue, an 18 will always result. In this film, the first use occurs in a scene at the police station where we see a swear box, accompanied by a list of all the swear words that warrant a fine to be placed in the box. The word is seen briefly as part of this list. Given that the word is not actually spoken at this point, and that the context makes it clear that the word is offensive, examiners felt that the 15 would suffice. The second use occurs where police officer Nick listens to his sergeant describing a man's selling drugs to students. Nick's response of, ‘What a c**t!’ is an expression of his disapproval of trading in drugs, rather than aggressive swearing directed straight at the offending drug dealer. Because of the context, and the fact that the film is comic throughout, examiners felt that there was no need to raise the classification to 18 on account of the language.
The film exploits the presentation of bad language in one scene, where hero cop Nick Angel snarls, ‘You mothers...!’ at a group of (literal) mums who come down the lane with their children, making a joke about a familiar swear word, without using the word itself. Nick uses this swear word as the doctor is shot in the foot, much as action heroes are accustomed to do in the films which Hot Fuzz sends up - again, the context is comic.
The fact that the film is a spoof of various familiar genre films - the cop movie, the action movie, the horror movie, the mystery thriller - means that the violence and horror merited a different treatment from violence and horror occurring as part of a serious film.
Very similar to Hot Fuzz: the comedy element is seen as diminishing the impact of the 'very strong language'. Is that convincing, or fair when compared to the Indie films on teens that get slapped with 18s? An excerpt from the 'Insight' guidance on why it got a 15:
There are three uses of very strong language ('c**t'), all of which occur in comic contexts and only one of which is spoken in a belligerent manner. The film also contains frequent strong language ('f**k' and 'motherf**ker').
Comic sex references occur throughout the film, including comments about having sex in a toilet, with someone's sister, and with a pair of female twins. There are also references to erections and a scene set in a club in which women dressed in school uniforms dance in a suggestive manner.
There are scenes of fantastical comic violence when the lead characters encounter aliens who have taken on human form and engage them in chaotic fights. The limbs and heads of the aliens are ripped off amidst showers of unrealistic 'blood', but they are virtually indestructible and simply return to carry on the fighting.
The film also contains drug references and brief soft drug use, along with alcohol consumption and scenes of smoking.
It is suggested that one of the main characters has been suffering from depression, and at one point he is shown with bandaged wrists, indicating recent self harming or a suicide attempt. No further detail is given and there are no scenes of self harm in the film.

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