Special Features – The 12A Rating: For Profit or Art?

Paul Risker asks whether the BBFC’s 12A classification is forcing producers to sacrifice artistic integrity for commercial gains…

Then and Now

The Woman in Black and The Hunger Games are a reminder of how far removed we are from the years of censorship controversy at the hands of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). The 1970s saw The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) banned in British theatres despite international theatrical releases. The moral panic of the 1980s, instigated by the ‘video nasties’, saw the video release of Straw Dogs banned under the 1984 Video Recordings Act, contrary to the X rating theatrical release in 1971.

In ‘the year of our Lord’ 2012, the opposite is true, something that in the past would have been considered ironic. The distributors and producers of The Woman in Black and The Hunger Games have displaced the censors, securing through voluntary cuts the desired 12A rating.

The producers of The Hunger Games took it upon themselves to submit a rough cut of the film for an ‘advice viewing’, enabling them to achieve the desired 12A rating. Such discourse is not dissimilar to the way in which Spielberg in the 1990s would consult with former director of the BBFC James Ferman on questions of content, ensuring his films achieved the all-important family friendly ratings.

The producers of The Woman in Black however sought no ‘advice viewings’, and were disappointed with an uncut 15 rating on submission. In North America the film had received a PG-13 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the equivalent of the BBFC 12A classification. What passes for the 12A rating does in fact vary to the PG-13, and therein lay the mistake of the producers to not be fully aware of the variations in international guidelines.

Self-censorship in the case of these two films begins a discourse on the relationship between commerce and art in cinema, and the issue of a film’s integrity over marketing, promotion and distribution strategy.

The minor differences between the MPAA’s PG-13 rating and BBFC’s 12A suggests that whilst art and the experience of art should not be defined by international borders, these minor differences permit such compromises to exist, even in the West.

Censorship or Commercial Strategy?

Discussing the cuts requested by distributors and producers to The Woman in Black and The Hunger Games, Mark Kermode in his recent ‘Uncut’ video blog argued, ‘…that’s not censorship, that’s marketing, that’s promotion, that’s distribution.’

The lynchpin in the marketing and promotion strategy for both The Hunger Games and The Woman in Black was the young adult audience, with the intention of capitalising on a fan base that for The Hunger Games was derived from its young adult source material, whilst for The Woman in Black it was star power.

The Woman in Black stars Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps, who through the Harry Potter film series, none of which exceeded the 12A classification, had secured the young actor a loyal fan base. Despite a potentially lucrative star, there was no guarantee the fan base would follow Radcliffe to his latest film, but distributors and producers hoped nevertheless that his presence would prove to be a profitable asset.

Whilst The Woman in Black is an example of the influence of a star over marketing, promotion and distribution strategy, The Hunger Games testifies to the influence of source material, and the demand on strategy to secure the audience that is expected to come along with the rights of a work when originally purchased. However, both strategies were dependent on attaining the MPAA’s PG-13, and the BBFC’s 12A rating.

The censoring of material which would have otherwise made The Woman in Black and The Hunger Games 15 rated films by the distributors and producers, is an act of self-censorship, and whilst Kermode defends it as commercial strategy, it is censorship which derives from the marketing, promotion and distribution concerns.

Profit or Art?

Horror is a diverse genre, in which ghost stories can range from subtle, atmospheric narratives such as The Innocents (1961) and The Others (2001), rated the advisory 12A, to films such as The Sixth Sense (1999) and The Orphanage (2007) rated 15. Whilst the latter two horror films require a subtle and deft touch to build atmosphere, they also employ intense jump moments.

Director James Watkin’s skilfully manipulates the architecture of the haunted house, the mechanical toys and dolls faces, to build a sense of impending doom, using as any atmospheric horror film does the shadows and empty space upon which the spectator can project his or her own horrific imaginings. The audience derives an unadulterated pleasure of nervous tension from the anticipation of the eventual jump moments. Much like the punch line of a joke, the jump moment is crucial to these types of horror films, permitting through skilful editing and use of sound and image at key moments the release of tension; the second unadulterated pleasure of the horror film.

Subtle horror films bypass these moments, skilfully building and maintaining tension without giving into such indulgences, and if they should they are subtle jump moments that lack the intensity of those to be experienced in The Sixth Sense, The Orphanage and now The Woman in Black. These less intense horror films are exercises in the art of subtle and suggestive horror, efficiently maintaining a sense of suspense and anticipation, until the characters yield the final revelation.

It is these intense jump moments which define the difference between a 12A and a 15 rated horror film. The Woman in Black was deemed unsuitable for twelve year olds as a result of the intensity of image and sound in jump moments. In order to attain the desired lower rating, distributors and producers were required to tone down the intensity of apparitions and sound effects, in turn lessening the impact of jump moments.

David Austin, BBFC Head of Policy on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Kermode and Mayo Film Review gave a thorough explanation of the support provided to distributors and producers to attain a 12A rating:

‘Throughout the film we asked the company to tone down some of the sharper sounds during jump moments. The film makes very effective use of sound, and that really added to the intensity and the scariness of the jump moments; so we asked them to tone down the sound in parts… Again jump moments, faces suddenly appear at a window, or sequences like that, and the company with our agreement toned down the image, so the shots were darkened, so the impact of the shots was reduced, and we felt that when the company made all those changes, we felt it was classifiable at 12A. It is still a scary film, but not quite as intense as it had been when we first saw it.’

The self-censorship of these jump moments, the toned down sounds and images deprive the spectator of the jump, the scare circumvented due to the failure of the producers and director to realise that jumps are dependent on the length of the exposure of sound and image. The image and sound of the apparition at the window in one shot, or the body hanging from the ceiling rafters in another are too brief to stimulate the intended jump of the spectator; from which derives that pleasure of terror one experiences when viewing a horror film.

M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense was released in UK theatres uncut with a 15 rating, followed two years later by The Others rated an uncut 12. In consideration of these two films, they successfully embraced an individual interpretation of horror, despite their identical twists.

Prioritising commercial concerns over the integrity of the film in order to reach a broad audience is an example of profit over art. The Woman in Black on original submission was rated an uncut 15, in line with similarly intense horror films. Forcibly reshaped into a 12A, just as the woman haunts Arthur Kipps in the film’s narrative, the ghost of the film’s former self haunts the British 12A rated version.

Final Thoughts

It is reasonable for producers to construct a marketing, promotion and distribution strategy that provides the best opportunity to secure a return on investment, requiring the film to take a gross profit double its budget. Commercial strategy should however not compromise the integrity of the film as a piece of art. Whilst producers of The Hunger Games were successful in substituting cuts with alternative shots, unlike The Woman in Black they were able to avoid structural compromises within its narrative, but geography determines whether you see a more intense or less intense version of the film.

Either the BBFC need to amend the 12A guidelines to bring it in line with the MPAA’s PG-13 rating, who are also focused on the well-being of American youth and their exposure to unsuitable material, or producers need to be aware of international censorship guidelines to ensure borders do not define the experience as is the case with both films.

To ensure there is not a repeat of these compromises, there is a requirement for greater synchronisation between promotional, marketing and distribution strategy, and consideration of the artistic execution to ensure the film attains the desired rating on both sides of the Atlantic with integrity.

Despite self-censored cuts and re-substitutions, The Woman in Black and The Hunger Games have performed well at both the domestic and international box office. Looking to the future, this financial success may persuade producers to tone down 15 rated films to the more commercial 12A rating. The Woman in Black proves that despite cuts and a compromised integrity, the appeal of the film was not hindered. The Hunger Games may exasperate the situation setting a precedent that darker and more mature subject material, originally explored in higher rated films like Battle Royale (2000), The Running Man (1987) and Rollerball (1975), can now be successfully depicted in 12A rated films – a lucrative category that reaches a broad audience.

Whilst The Hunger Games is for the most part effective in its depiction of the violence of the games, and the early 12A rated Bourne trilogy possessed the intensity of higher rated action films, not all films will be as effective, and it will be a matter of wait and see as to the way producers and distributors choose to proceed with the use of the 12A rated film: for profit or art?

Paul Risker is a freelance writer and contributor to Flickering Myth, Scream The Horror Magazine and The London Film Review.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jonathan-Kuperberg/698603245 Jonathan Kuperberg

    I am one who insists on buying or downloading the American version of such films. I am also getting the US, 18-rated version of The Runaways and Immortals (cut for glue sniffing and gore respectively for commercial reasons to be passed 15 in the UK.) Having used torrents for Murder-set-pieces and the Bunny Game, I shouldn't think they will be too horrific for me.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=591575240 Gavin Salkeld

    Great artciel, but one small correction – The Woman in Black wasn't officially rated 15 until an uncut version was submitted for home video (that has yet to be released). At the time of cinema release, the BBFC informed the distributors that a 15 rating would be the end result unless cuts were made. It was never formally classified 15 and then "changed" to a 12A.

  • Paul

    Apologies for the error, and thanks for the positive feedback. Glad you enjoyed the piece.