This week, Neil Calloway argues that far from increasing revenues in conservative countries, by allowing censored versions of their movies to be shown, Hollywood will ultimately lose out…
This week brought the news that transgender period drama The Danish Girl has been banned in Qatar. I doubt Working Title will be too upset that their film isn’t being shown in a small, conservative country of about two million people (roughly a quarter of the population of New York City or London), and if I made a film that had been banned due to its apparent “moral depravity” I’d put that quote on the poster, but as studios look to expand their international box office, you can expect this to increasingly become an issue with films.
Banning films in their entirety rarely happens in the West now, but the occasional film does get stopped from being released – in 2015, the British Board of Film Classification refused to give a certificate to Hate Street, a 2012 film about neo-Nazis terrorising a Jewish family. I don’t think we’re missing out on a new Citizen Kane or 2001: A Space Odyssey by being the opportunity to watch it. Most studios will cut films to gaina release at their preferred rating, with the BBFC working with the producers of Spectre, for example, to get a 12A rating, roughly analogous to the US PG-13. After the “video nasties” moral panic of the 1980s, which led to the law being changed so that home videos had to be submitted to the BBFC, most of the films banned have since been released uncut. In fact, most of them have been remade too.
It’s a little known fact that in Britain, responsibility for whether films can or cannot be shown does not belong to the BBFC, but local councils. It is they who have final say on what is and what isn’t shown at the cinemas in their area. And you thought they just emptied your bins. Not having a nationwide overseer does cause some issues. One of the most banned films is Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and it remains banned in some areas. On its initial release several councils refused to have it shown in cinemas under their control, and it was first shown in Aberystwyth in 2009, when Sue Jones-Davies, who appears in the film as Judith Iscariot, was elected mayor of the town. It wasn’t shown in Bournemouth until 2015. One council to ban it was Runnymede, the trouble was there weren’t any cinemas in Runnymede at this point.
If films are rarely banned these days, they still sometimes get cut for release. When Martin Scorsese’s 2013 film The Wolf of Wall Street was released in the Gulf, it was cut by 45 minutes at the insistence of the distributor, which is owned by the Qatari government. I’d probably agree that The Wolf of Wall Street needed a bit of trimming here and there, but three quarters of an hour is overdoing it, and I bet they cut all the fun parts. It might be connected that The Wolf of Wall Street went on to become the most pirated film of 2014. Fifty Shades of Grey was cut by twenty minutes for its Vietnamese release, again, they probably cut the fun bits rather than the bad bits. Bizarrely, being cut or banned only adds to the lustre of a film; people will want to see an otherwise unremarkable film if they hear it is in someway controversial and someone thinks they shouldn’t see it. In this case, in the 21st Century, they’ll probably just go online to watch it.
In a globalised world studios may be more likely to acquiesce to cuts that decimate their films in search of international revenues, but also in a globalised world consumers will be able to download unexpurgated versions of the film illegally rather than watching the censored versions in the cinema, and therefore studios will lose out on much needed box office. They won’t, but Hollywood should insist that only the original cut of their films are shown; anything else will lead to them missing out.
Neil Calloway is a pub quiz extraordinaire and Top Gun obsessive. Check back here every Sunday for future instalments.