Film Ratings Still Matter

July 13, 2020

Black-and-white photo of Tim Covell.

Written by guest blogger Tim Covell.

Film ratings, or movie age classifications, seem a quaint relic of a bygone era. Whereas you once had to lie about your age to a ticket clerk to see forbidden content, now you simply check “Yes, I am 18” – if the web site bothers to ask. As for film cuts and bans, it’s been almost two decades since a high-profile ban (À ma sœur! [Fat Girl, 2001], in Ontario), and the use of age classifications is presumed to mean the end of cuts.

The authority and relevance of film classification agencies across Canada is fading. Last fall, the Ontario government stopped classifying films, relying on British Columbia’s ratings. Manitoba and Saskatchewan had earlier made the same decision. In British Columbia, decades ago, ratings were issued by the Film Classification Branch of the Ministry of the Attorney General, operating out of the provincial courthouse. Ratings are now issued by Consumer Protection BC, a non-profit corporation providing government services. Quebec’s Régie du cinema was merged into the Ministry of Culture and Communications a few years ago, and the Maritime Film Review Board has not updated their web site since 2016.

Meanwhile, parents concerned about the suitability of movies for their children have a choice of web sites providing information about films, often with more detail about potentially offensive content. For example, Ontario guidelines permitted the word fuck once per 30 minutes of runtime in a PG film (and more depending on context, such as in The Kings Speech (2010)), possibly with a coarse language warning, but a private service warned parents there are “about 12 F-words” in The King’s Speech.

Given social and technological changes, do film ratings still matter? Should anyone care, other than parents? Do they need to be provincial, or even national, or could we use ratings assigned by private companies or the film industry, such as the well-known MPAA ratings?

Film ratings do matter, and not just to parents. Films are still cut, both in production and after release, to achieve specific ratings. Some agencies, such as the British Board of Film Classification, provide information on post-release cuts as part of the rating. Canadian agencies have suggested and even demanded cuts (on the threat of still-permissible bans), but this information is not generally public. In the United States, some swearing in The Kings Speech was cut to obtain a PG-13 rating, but the drive to maximize the audience meant many adults viewed a censored film. This film, originally Restricted and cut to obtain a PG-13 rating in the United States, whereas it was PG, uncut, in Ontario, is an example of the typically more conservative ratings of the MPAA.

Film ratings matter to streaming and cable services. Their audiences expect content to have age classifications, and online and cable services often use provincial ratings as a guide to determine the rating they apply.

Film ratings particularly matter to children – they are the viewers directly affected. Under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, children must not only be protected from harmful film content but participate in the process of being protected from that content. In Canada, only Alberta had extensive involvement of children in setting film classification regulations, according to a study I conducted in 2015. Outsourcing film classification to distant provinces, private companies, or other countries, does not meet our obligations to children.

The more I have researched film classification in Canada, the more I have become concerned about the complacency that has allowed agencies to close, records to be lost, and cuts and bans to continue, while ratings are set by ever more remote classifiers. Age classification of films is desirable, and it’s essential to protect children, but it should be transparent and responsive to regional or provincial concerns.

Black-and-white mage of cougar.

The Restricted Cougar (copyright by and registered trademark of Consumer Protection BC) was developed in British Columbia in the 1960s, to provide a distinct provincial identifier for Restricted films. The image was also used in public service announcement trailers before Restricted films. In the 1990s, the English-language classification agencies harmonized their ratings and symbols, in cooperation with the film industry’s Canadian Home Video Rating System (CHVRS). As a result, the Restricted Cougar was retired, and a little piece of Canadian culture was lost.

Tim Covell holds degrees in English Literature, Film Studies, and Canadian Studies. In addition to researching film classification, he’s a technical writer and freelance editor, he writes short fiction and non-fiction, and he is preparing his first romance novel for publication. His latest article in the Journal of Canadian Studies entitled “Government versus Industry Self-Regulation: Film Classification in Canada and the United States” is free to read for a limited time here.

The UTP Journals blog features guest posts from our authors. The opinions expressed in these posts may not necessarily represent those of UTP Journals and their clients.

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