I’ve been studying film classification systems, or movie age ratings, for years. I wrote undergrad essays on the subject, an MA thesis on it, and have published journal articles. You can find some here. There are also many blog posts. I’ve concluded that, for all their flaws, film classification systems are necessary, desirable, and best run by the government (in a democracy). That’s what we have done in Canada, along with many other countries.
The United States has a voluntary system of film classification, run by the film industry. It favours films from the larger companies, ignores regional differences, and practises invisible censorship (films are quietly altered before or after production). It’s not responsive to public concerns, and while the classifiers are nominally independent, film industry representatives dominate the appeals board. Finally, contrary to what might be expected, censorship still occurs with age-classification, and industry run classification has more censorship and more restrictive classifications than government censorship.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child encourages countries to have film classification systems, in order to protect children from film content that may be harmful to them. The Convention also requires that children participate in decisions that affect them, including film classification. The United States does not meet these requirements, but has not signed the Convention (it’s the only country that hasn’t). Canada has signed the Convention, and more or less meets these obligations to children with mandatory classification in most provinces, and the participation of children in film classification in some provinces.
In short, the Canadian system of film classification is better than the American system, for many reasons. But, just over a year ago, the Government of Ontario stopped classifying films, choosing to rely on the ratings from British Columbia as an interim measure while they developed a “new approach.” In a journal article published earlier this year, I predicted Ontario would likely adopt the MPAA ratings, to the detriment of independent film makers and film viewers, especially children.
The government has now introduced amendments to the Film Act, which scrap ratings, and call for age recommendations and content advisories to be issued by film distributors, with the distributors to supply contact information for complaints. This is apparently to ease regulatory burden. However, if film distributors have to prepare a special recommendation and advisory just for Ontario, and staff a complaints desk, there’s not much change to the regulatory burden – if anything, it’s increased. If this goes through, I fully expect the film industry to announce that the existing MPAA age recommendations, content advisories, and contact information meet the requirements. In other words, Ontario will end up using the MPAA ratings, and this may put pressure on other provinces to follow suit.
Who benefits from this change? Large film companies. Why is it being being done? Because the Ontario provincial government and its supporters have the ideology that government is bad, and business is good. From decades of studying film classification systems, I know that’s wrong when it comes to movie ratings. From witnessing the collapse of American democracy and growing social inequality thanks to small-government conservatives and neo-liberals, we should all know by now that the ‘business does it better’ mantra is bad for everything and everyone, except large companies and wealthy individuals. I take little comfort in predicting this sad shift to the film industry providing film classification in Ontario, and hold out hope that more reasonable approaches continue in other provinces.