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Movie Night: Student PSA Films and the BC Cougar

In 2006 the Ontario Film Review Board invited student film makers to submit proposals for Public Service Announcements. The PSAs were to explain ratings systems to theatre goers, and remind parents that they are expected to consider ratings when selecting films for their children. The Board often receives complaints from parents angry that their child was exposed to something objectionable in a film, but in many cases the parents were unaware of the film’s rating or content advisories.

Selected proposals were given funds to create the PSA. The competition was repeated in 2008, and in 2009 British Columbia held a similar competition. The PSAs produced are a mix of various takes on the topic. British Columbia Film Classification posted the films to YouTube, and they are still available.  The OFRB posted the films on their own site, and later removed them. A few are available on YouTube.

A little earlier, in 1960, British Columbia adopted the cougar as a symbol for restricted movies. Chief Censor Ray MacDonald selected the cougar to identify restricted movies as it was dramatic and the largest native cat in BC (yes, it is copyrighted). Meanwhile, Ontario was using a key as the symbol for restricted movies. Theatres played a bumper (short clip) before all restricted films. This (or something very close to it) is the bumper I saw before Body Heat in the early 1980s:

In 1989 the BC film classification office, with NFB animator Hugh Foulds, produced a new series of warnings, still featuring the cougar, though a little sleeker.

All of these are a lot more fun than they had south of the border. No PSAs, and no frills bumper: MPAA Restricted Bumper.

Ratings and Publicity

In a curious twist, the new film Easy A is using the lack of any censorship scandal, and content determined by ratings, for promotional purposes. Director Will Gluck is proud of the lack of sex in a sex comedy, though that is no great achievement: Any number of screwball comedies in the 1930s, from It Happened One Night to Trouble in Paradise managed that quite well. He’s also proud of avoiding “bad language,” though there was enough to help bump the film to 14A in Ontario, with advisories about sexual content and language. Clearly he was not that hard on himself with his “self-imposed censorship.” Read the full article.

Censorship and Publicity

Omri Silverthorne was the chair of the Ontario Film Review Board from 1934 to 1974. By the 1960s, he was publicly calling for an end to censorship, and on his retirement he encouraged the government to end film censorship. In 1963, he noted that “Banning any film today only arouses controversy and brings it a publicity value it does not deserve.”  Film makers and distributors know there is nothing like a censorship scandal for free publicity. Robert Lantos took full advantage of the newly conservative Ontario Board in 1978 to promote the slightly silly In Praise of Older Women.

Canadian author Annabel Lyon is not the shameless promoter that Lantos was, but she must be enjoying the publicity given her book The Golden Mean after BC Ferries decided the shocking cover image was not fit for the family nature of their gift shops.

The Goldern Mean book cover

The story has since been covered internationally, including articles in England, South Africa, Iran, and closer to home in the New Yorker.

As noted on Lyon’s blog, Random House declined to add a wrapper for distribution on the ferries. However, the controversy may have influenced the tamer cover choice for the American edition.

Are Ratings Censorship?

Film ratings, in use in Canada since the 1950s, and in the United States since the 1960s, are often considered more progressive than censorship. Ratings presume that children need more protection from film content than adults do, and that everyone benefits from warnings about content. This may be true, although films that are suitable for all ages can act as a unifying social force, and can make a lot of money. Films targeted to age groups are an aspect of cultural fragmentation accelerated by the internet, and are not necessarily a good thing.

Ratings influence content in two directions. A film maker or distributor seeking the widest possible audience may self-censor, before or after production, in order to achieve a lower rating. A famous case of this was the post-production changes to Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Kubrick was contractually required to produce an ‘R’ rated film, and when the MPAA issued an NC-17, the distributor digitally added objects to block the offending content. When obtaining a desired rating requires removing or blocking content, ratings are no different than traditional censorship.

On the other hand, a film targeted at a specific audience, for example teens, may deliberately add content to ensure a film rating high enough to make attendance cool. Teens may reject a film rating General as being too childish. While adding material might seem the opposite of censorship, it is still a case of regulations influencing content. Rating films is more progressive than cutting or banning films, but it is still censorship.