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 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.
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.