Is The BBFC About To Kill Independent Home Video In The UK By Accident?

J Hurtado, Contributing Writer
A few months ago in a home video review round up, I called Arrow Video the finest cult home video label in the world. Part of that declaration was due to their incredibly impressive curation of titles, part of it has to do with the increasingly astounding quality of their visual and aural product, but a big chunk of what sets them apart from the competition around the world is the regular inclusion of comprehensive "bonus material".

Arrow has made their mark on the international home video market by including feature length documentary films with many of their releases on top of the top notch booklets, interviews, commentary tracks, and spiffy packages. Those documentaries have, until now, been exempt from classification by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). However, new proposed rules will require the classification of some bonus materials before the final products can be commercially released in UK stores.

Why does this pose a problem for home video distributors? Well, submitting content to the BBFC costs money, in some cases quite a bit of money. For the major studios it's all a drop in a very big bucket, however, for an independent label like Arrow, it can potentially affect whether or not that material is submitted at all. If this exclusive material is to disappear from these releases, what is there to set them apart from other releases internationally, which is where these cult labels have to aim their business. The BBFC is very close to stacking the deck against their own homegrown businesses and handicapping them in a way that could have calamitous consequences for many.

Unlike the MPAA, America's own movie nanny, BBFC ratings are mandatory in order to get a product on store shelves unless the content is specifically exempted. Studios or distributors submit films to the MPAA for ratings voluntarily, though under heavy pressure. A film can be released without an MPAA rating, however, this severely undercuts avenues for theatrical exhibition and advertising, as many venues for both won't take on unrated work, and the dreaded NC-17 isn't much better. However, once the film is rated (a process that does cost a pretty penny), it's rated, and the story is over. It can be released on home video with the same content as the original rating without having to recertify. On top of that, if a distributor decides that they want to release an unrated version to home video, as they are wont to do, they can do so without having to ask the MPAA if it's okay. This is not the case in the UK.

In the UK, a film must be certified by the BBFC to be screened publicly, and if a distributor wishes to release the film to home video, it must be certified again. The exact same film. Again. That means that when a small distributor like Third Window Films plans to distribute a monster like Love Exposure, they have to pay to certify it twice, and the BBFC charges per minute. That, in and of itself, is a redundancy of ridiculous proportion, however, when you add the cost of certifying extras, it can become too much for a small company like Third Window Films, essentially a one man operation, to bear.

Labels like Arrow, Third Window, Eureka's Masters of Cinema, Second Run, BFI, et al in the UK are the envy of the world, and this change, however minor and inadvertent in the minds of the BBFC, puts all of those years of hard work building that reputation in jeopardy. Not only does it threaten the very business model of these boutique companies by adding undue expenses to their overhead costs, it also threatens the livelihoods of the men and women who create that content, people like Calum Waddell and Naomi Holwill of High Rising Productions, the company who creates much of Arrow's bonus content. With the added cost of creating and certifying their product, the demand for the product will almost certainly decrease, and perhaps even disappear in time.

The purpose of the BBFC's rule change is to protect children from seeing unrated, saucier material sometimes packaged along with music video compilations and other such teeny-bopper material. Sure, b-roll can get a bit frisky, but the new rules would force companies who are admittedly selling 15 and 18 rated material to make sure that all of their content is rated. If you're selling a bloody horror film, isn't it fair to assume that the looks behind the scenes might be too much for kids? Children aren't even legally allowed to purchase material above their age certificate, so the whole thing makes no sense.

The BBFC's own website states that:
The BBFC does not have enforcement role once a DVD is in the home, but under the terms of the Video Recording Act under which the BBFC age rates DVDs in the UK, we must be aware of the likelihood of underage viewing. In some cases a film might be cut if it is very likely that younger children will try to see it on DVD.
Which begs the question: Why do they care? Is it not the parents' responsibility to decide for the child? The fact that all of this maneuvering takes place under the umbrella of the infamous Video Recordings Act of 1984 (AKA, the Video Nasties Act), is all the more amusing in that it only serves to further regress into nanny-statehood.

By all means, inform parents that the Shakira concert DVD they're considering includes a potentially scarring amount of booty shaking. However, attempting to conflate famous-girls-gone-wild with talking head interviews about an 18 rated naked space vampire epic like LIfeforce is farcical at best, and antithetic to the bustling industry right under their noses.

The BBFC is charged, by law, with protecting the children of the Empire, such as it is. However, these proposed changes to their certification rules go too far, and are far too vague to effectively manage that goal without significantly hindering an industry already in decline, the home video business. The BBFC is about the neuter one of the major advantages that home video holds over the relentless onslaught of streaming video: bonus material. Forget your pretty packaging, your gatefold covers, and your well-researched booklets; this simple, myopic slip of the pen threatens to wipe out true independents left and right if not amended.

Below you'll find a petition to amend the new certification standards. If you are in the UK, sign it. It may not do anything, but you'll certainly not hurt anything by trying.
Around the Internet:
  • Ard Vijn

    Stupid law amendment or not, the BBFC can do something about the outrageous costs associated with getting these films rated, especially if they have to be re-rated multiple times. Also, maybe documentaries could be rated for a discount perhaps, instead of either being exempt or not?

    The BBFC has had plenty of leeway to avoid this situation from becoming harmful to the industry. No, we're not mis-aiming blame here.

  • James Dennis

    The BBFC aren't blameLESS of course and could change pricing structures etc. but the buck stops with DCMS as per EvilJames below. Ultimately they are creating this problem. If we take the pressure off the DCMS, then other people just keep having to solve problems created by a misinformed/ ignorant government. So perhaps not mis-aimed, but I think the biggest weight of blame should be with gov.

  • James Dennis

    The issue here is our typically short sighted and reductive government seeking a quick fix, not the BBFC who have been pretty flexible of late. Blame is being somewhat mis-aimed here.

  • J Hurtado

    I understand, but as an independent body, don't they have some ethical obligation to push back against stuff like this? If the government doesn't take the long view, should not the BBFC advocate for themselves?

  • James Dennis

    For sure I'd agree with that - they shouldn't just sit and take it. It's not really in their interests to bankrupt distributors either. I just feel we shouldn't let the DCMS off so lightly and aim squarely at the BBFC.

  • EvilJames

    It's worth pointing out that the real authors of the amendments to the VRA are the DCMS (Department of Culture, Media and Sport), who have been working on it since even before the Conservative Government took power. The BBFC merely have to enforce the rules, though they could have done more to push back against them.

  • thirdwindowfilms

    yes of course they have in theory been backed into a corner regarding laws, but that is, nor will ever be an excuse to the ludicrous prices they charge. Maybe they have been forced to review the same film for theatrical and DVD (though i honestly don't see any rational sense behind it so can't find the real reason as to why), but charging a stupidly high cost per minute and forcing indies to pay for the same film in theatres, again on dvd, and now again for extras is nothing more than greed and 100% attributed to the BBFC. They could easily do what is done in Ireland (and which I have always used as an example) in which films which are released on a limited scale get charged a limited cost, but they refuse to listen to such notions. Actually, many years back they would give discounts to foreign films, but they cancelled such a thing, so maybe that is why we don't see as many foreign films in the UK as we used to??

    In the end, one of the MAIN reasons why there aren't many indie distributors and as a direct connection a variety of independent cinema is not seen in the UK is all to do with the COSTS involved with the BBFC, not the laws.

  • J Hurtado

    I wanted to ramble, and used your example, Adam, as a key to why this is harmful, but I tried to stay on topic. We have had many conversations even before this particularly huge issue about the crippling costs imposed by the BBFC

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