The Film Classification Debate

Cinemagic Film Festival programmer Chris Shaw and young consultant Aoife McQuaid share their thoughts 

With the 2008 Coca-Cola Cinemagic International Film and Television Festival for Young People underway, festival programmer Chris Shaw remembers the introduction of the 12 certificate, and 12-year old festival consultant Aoife McQuaid examines the importance of film classification for young people.


Every film that is released in the UK has to go through one final process before it reaches the cinemas – classification. It is the role of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) to view each title and to rate it accordingly – simple. Well maybe it’s not that straight forward. Debate and controversy can often follow classification as everyone has their own opinion on what qualifies as suitable viewing.

The first time I became aware of the issues and controversy concerning film classification was in 1989 with the release of Tim Burton’s Batman. The BBFC had just brought into existence the new 12 certificate and Batman was the first cinema release in the UK to be awarded the rating. 

I can remember there was a fantastic buzz at school the week of Batman’s release as this was the first time (without sneaking past any ushers!) that we could see a movie that was deemed unsuitable for our younger brothers and sisters. 

At the time it was felt by the BBFC that the gap between films rated PG and Cert 15 was becoming too wide, and as a result the average 12-year old was missing out on a whole series of action and adventure films that they could easily digest without any social repercussions. Of course at the same time there were also groups who strongly condemned the new rating, believing young teenagers would be at risk to scenes and themes of an unsuitable nature.

So on a rainy August evening I took my seat in the cinema to become one of the first to view a 12 certificate. Although I enjoyed the film immensely the overriding memory of the whole experience was not the actual movie itself, but the social and cultural debate that had been ignited due to a change in classification regulation.

Fast forward almost 20 years and we are beginning to slowly recover from the latest controversy to surround classification. Coincidently the latest film in the spotlight, The Dark Knight, is the new feature in the Batman franchise.

The 12A certificate awarded to the film has caused so much controversy that it has sparked on-line petitions for reclassification and moved politicians to condemn the allocated rating. In this instance the major concerns being the frequent use of knives in the film (especially sensitive in contemporary society) and a belief in a number of quarters that the BBFC had given into distributors' demands to lower the classification for commercial reasons. 

However, the BBFC strongly defend their position by stating they applied the standard classification model to the film, and concluded the film’s violence to be ‘discreetly presented’ and the movie to have a ‘cartoon atmosphere that ultimately lessens the impact of the aggression’. As a result the film falls in line with their 12A rating.

Debates and discussions surrounding film classification have a complex history. Established almost 100 years ago the BBFC was set-up by the film industry as a self regulatory body independent of government interference. Over the years the relationship between both parties has been described as amicable, many believing that an unspoken agreement exists where classifications fall in line with government standards in return for parliament making no attempt to create an official body. 

It is suggested, however, that this relationship may soon be put to the test by those in officialdom who are vying to create a singular government organisation to regulate all broadcast media, film and video. This raises concerns and ignites the debate that a government controlled body would lead to a lack of cohesion and stability as the inevitability of regular government change often means a change in attitudes and opinions.

The actual legitimacy and authority of the film certificate is also itself steeped in ambiguity and debate. As an independent organisation, a BBFC certificate allocated to a film is only advisory. Local councils have the real power and they can impose their own age limits on films. Council authority was encouraged recently by the Shadow Culture Minister who wanted to remind local authorities of this entitlement in the wake of the Dark Knight affair. 

While local councils usually follow the rhetoric of the BBFC there are examples when they do avail of this authority. It’s important to state that a council decision is not always to increase a rating but on occasions they also reduce the classification. 

However, real concerns still remain that when councils use their power they often use it to censor rather than classify. This can lead not only to the fragmentation of distribution/exhibition channels but to the fragmentation of the rights of the individual to choose for themselves what they can and cannot view. Controversy is inevitable if one local authority allows its citizens to view a film while another has decided to ban it.

Film classification will always provoke debate and discussion amongst individuals as well as providing a fantastic arena for self expression. The visual media is so prevalent in modern society that it is inevitable that it will rise to the top of social, cultural and political agendas. 

Whether individuals are concerned that contemporary society is beginning to mirror the fictional, sometimes violent, realities of the cinema screen, or whether they believe they should be able to make their own decisions to view whatever they wish, there will always be someone who disagrees.

Chris Shaw, Cinemagic Festival Programmer

As the majority of children, teenagers or young adults could tell you, we do not pay much attention to film classifications.

Film classification is a method for controlling what children, teenagers and young adults view. If no adherence is paid to this it becomes redundant.

I personally feel film classification is required and is vital to monitoring the types of films that young people view these days. In today’s society it is vital that young people are shielded as much as possible from viewing violence, strong language or scenes of an inappropriate nature. This is where film classification is at its most important.

U (Universal) and PG (Parental Guidance) certificates play an important role in preventing children from viewing films of an unsuitable nature, whereas 12, 15 cert etc are mostly aimed at teenagers. These are complied with at cinemas, yet, in my opinion, need to be more strictly applied at rental shops.

I feel that the film classifications that state a child must be accompanied by an adult makes little sense to me. If a child is not ready to view the film he or she should not be viewing it regardless of the adults company. 

There is a reason these controls have been put in place and they must be adhered to. However, it seems to me that there are too many classifications - Uc, U, PG, 12a and 12! If you are under the age of 12 you should not be permitted to view a 12 film. I do not see the need for the 12a classification. This view also extends to the Uc classification. This can prove very confusing for young people when selecting the most appropriate film to view.

It is easy to be dismissive of film classifications, however, classification is there to control our viewing and to ensure that we as young people are not subjected to inappropriate conduct, language or violence. 

In summary, classification is vitally important and should be adhered to in all circumstances both by young people and by their parents and most of all adults in charge of cinemas, rental shops and internet download sites. I personally would feel uncomfortable viewing a film with any inappropriate behaviour and so adhere to the classifications applied – sadly this is not the case for many young people in today’s society.

Cinemagic Young Film Consultant, Aoife McQuaid, age 12 from Banbridge

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