Why Restructure the Ontario Film Review Board?

According to news stories in the Toronto Star and on CBC, the Ontario government is planning to restructure the Ontario Film Review Board, as part of a larger project involving the hundreds of provincial government boards. The expression “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” comes to mind. The Board has operated more or less the same way for thirty years, with no significant controversy for the last ten. Significantly, it makes a profit, which is turned over to the provincial treasury.

The Star emphasizes the amount of adult sex films the Board reviews, and their contribution to the income, but there no suggestion that this will be changing, other than a vague mention of considering the fees. Ontario charges $4.20 a minute to review films, and while other provinces charge half that for mainstream films, they typically charge a similar amount for adult sex films. Reviewing fees are inconsequential to major distributors, but a significant burden to smaller companies, such as adult sex distributors, and are prohibitive for adult sex companies and independent producers that specialize in niche markets such as gay, lesbian, and feminist erotica.

If the government is feeling guilty over the income from reviewing adult sex films, and the burden on that industry, they could simply stop reviewing them. Unlike other films, there is no question that the classification will be Restricted. Unlike other films, the review process does not provide any content information or warnings. Adult sex films may contain nothing but softly lit romantic, loving sex, or graphic close ups of people being murdered during sex (murder during sex is permitted as long as it is not for sexual pleasure). The mandate of the Board is to provide “the public with sufficient information to make informed viewing choices for themselves,” but they do not do this for adult sex films.

Board approval of an adult sex film does not mean it is legal, either. Obscenity laws are federal, not provincial, and only the criminal courts can determine if a film is legal or illegal (criminally obscene). As a result, the Board can and has approved films which have subsequently been found criminally obscene or seized at customs (it has also banned films which are not criminally obscene). Since the review of adult sex films does not confirm they are legal, or provide any information for viewers, it appears to be nothing more than a sin tax.

Government and Consumer Services Minister David Orazietti says he wants the board to make less money (?), and Board chair Bruce Davis is complaining that board members are required to watch pornography (in fact they fast forward through it), so perhaps they will scrap reviewing adult sex films. Civilization would not collapse. Alberta does not review any home video, including adult sex films, Manitoba does not ban any films, and Newfoundland and the Yukon have no film classification at all. Things would improve for small distributors of adult sex films, but I’m confused as to why any government would want to abandon existing revenue in order to make things easier for the pornography industry. Is no one thinking about the headlines?

The CBC story takes a different tack. Orazietti says he wants to talk to the other provinces about greater consistency in ratings, thus revealing his lack of knowledge about film classification in Canada. The story also suggests Ontario and Quebec are the only provinces that rate films, and the others rely on them or the American MPAA ratings. It’s not clear if this central-Canada-centric ignorance is Orazietti’s or the CBC‘s. Manitoba, Alberta, BC and Nova Scotia all rate films. New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island use Nova Scotia’s ratings, Nunavut and NWT use Alberta’s, and Saskatchewan uses BC’s. The days of other provinces accepting Ontario’s cuts because the bits of film have already been removed are long gone.

The five English language agencies harmonized their classification schemes in 2004, and across Canada, even taking Quebec’s significantly different classification scheme into account, three-quarters of all films get the same rating. My own analysis of ratings has shown that the only factor affecting consistency of ratings is whether the films are rated by appointed part time board members, or full time employees (as in Alberta, BC, and Quebec). It should be no surprise that a small group of full time employees give more consistent ratings.

The CBC story also mentions The Hunger Games as a film with inconsistent ratings, noting the unusually high 14A in Ontario. What they don’t mention is that The Hunger Games was originally rated PG in Ontario, and re-rated several weeks after release, in response to complaints.

The Ontario Film Review Board is not without problems. It would benefit from a few tweaks and an updated website. Film classification never makes everyone happy, and that’s okay. It is an example of the compromises that occur in functioning democracies. The Ontario Board has been working smoothly for years, makes money, and responds to the public. It’s hard to see how this new proposed Ontario Film Authority could be an improvement, which raises the possibility that things might get worse.

More than you ever wanted to know about the provincial film review boards: Film Classification in Canada and the United States: The Freedom of Government Control?

2 thoughts on “Why Restructure the Ontario Film Review Board?”

  1. When was this written? I’m reconstructing an installation that was originally made in response to the 1984 Theatres Act amendment which negatively affected artists’ film and video, and I’m wondering if this text was written around then or more recently.

  2. This was written in June of 2015. The big changes in 1984 were adding the guidelines to the regulations, to satisfy the court following the OFAVAS case, and requiring classification for home video. The former was a neutral change, and while the latter was a new requirement, in the early 1980s the Board had become much more flexible regarding the content of art films – provided they were submitted for review. The Canadian Images Film Festival at Trent University got in trouble for not submitting a film, and the festival shut down after the organizers were found guilty under the Theatres Act.

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