The Ontario government announced last Friday that it is shutting down the Ontario Film Authority. This is the provincial government agency that classifies films and home video distributed in Ontario. The plan is to create “a modern framework for film classification.” Meanwhile, films still require classifications. Ontario will temporarily use the classifications from British Columbia. The closure is intended to save the film industry money.
It’s no secret that the film industry does not like classification, though cost is not the issue. Large distributors want non-restrictive ratings to maximize their audience. It is small distributors who find the costs difficult. At $4.20 a minute, it can cost $300 to $500 to classify a film in Ontario (and there are five other classification agencies for other jurisdictions in Canada, all charging similar rates). This is nothing to a major company, but prohibitive to a small distributor, such as local video store considering importing a foreign film to offer for sale. However, the rise of streaming has reduced demand for DVDs and given new markets for independents, most film festivals do not require classification (unless children attend), and home video stores are mostly memories.
Despite disliking classification, large American film distributors have long tolerated it as it allows them to avoid complaints about content and appear to be responsible product manufacturers. Their preferred system of classification is industry controlled – the MPAA. The MPAA members are Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Netflix Studios LLC, Paramount Pictures Corporation, Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., Universal City Studios LLC, and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. Among other benefits, the MPAA helps their members maintain their oligopoly by giving more restrictive ratings to independent and foreign films. The MPAA treats Canada as part of the United States for distribution purposes – it’s considered the domestic market – so the need to deal with six classification agencies is Canada is a nuisance.
One of the MPAA arguments for maintaining control of classification is that industry classification prevents government censorship. Ironically, my comparative studies of film ratings in Canada and the United States (my MA thesis, and a forthcoming paper) show that industry ratings, although favouring some distributors, are on average more restrictive than government ratings. MPAA film classifications are more restrictive than the Canadian provincial average for 80% of all films. In their zeal to self-police and manage film content, the MPAA errs on the side of caution. However, there is some evidence that the higher MPAA ratings are due to Americans being more concerned than Canadians about portrayals of sexuality and drug use. Conversely, Canadian classification agencies are often more concerned about portrayals of violence than the MPAA.
If the end result of the Ontario government’s shut down of the Film Authority is to adopt MPAA ratings, a suggestion that has come up before, we will have ratings that are on average more restrictive than they are now, and do not reflect the concerns and sensibilities of Ontario residents. Meanwhile, the government has chosen to use the ratings of British Columbia – the most liberal of the agencies in Canada.
Canada’s system of rating films is unusual. In the earliest days of the film industry, censorship was local. As the industry grew and consolidated, national systems became common, usually run by or for the government (except in the United States), with the actual classifications performed by government employees, an appointed board, a non-profit corporation, or a film industry association. The provincial agencies in Canada rejected a national system in 1921, “as each province has a different class of people to deal with.” However, there have been some movements to shared systems.
Newfoundland abandoned film classification before joining Confederation, though ratings from Nova Scotia are used informally. The Yukon Territory has never had film classification, but ratings from BC are used informally. Nunavut and the Northwest Territories use classifications from other jurisdictions, typically Alberta. In the 1980s, New Brunswick shut down their agency, and started using classifications from Nova Scotia (for English films) and Quebec (for French films). In the 1990s, Prince Edward Island started using the Nova Scotia classifications, and Saskatchewan started using the BC classifications.
In this context, Ontario’s decision to use the BC classifications is part of a decades-long trend. And while provincial ratings do vary, my studies have shown they are the same about 75% of the time. Where Ontario and BC differ, BC is more liberal, and also more consistent. The latter may be a result of classifications performed by full-time employees instead of public board members working three or four days a month.
What does Ontario lose by using BC classifications? First, BC does not classify home video, except for adult sex films. For home video releases of theatrical films, the theatrical release rating can be used, but the content may be different. For straight to video films, there would be no classification.
Second, the Film Authority and its predecessor, the Ontario Film Review Board, answered to the Ontario government. If you had a concern about how a film was rated, you could take it up with your local member of the provincial parliament. People did, and in some cases the ratings of films were discussed in the legislature. The provincial classification agency increased the age rating of The Hunger Games a few weeks after release, in response to public complaints.
Third, the agency held regular public sessions to gather public input on film classification. Apart from the transparency, these sessions also allowed cable distributors and streaming companies to learn about the board’s approach to classification, and public concerns, and take those into consideration when classifying their content.
Finally, Ontario is a member of the Canadian Home Video Rating System (CHVRS). In the 1990s, with the rise of home video, and encouraged by a film industry challenged with selling videotapes in different Canadian jurisdictions with different classifications, the agencies largely (but not completely) harmonized their ratings (except Quebec). The industry created the Canadian Home Video Rating System (CHVRS), an average of the provincial ratings, except Quebec. With Ontario no longer rating films, their information is not considered for the CHRVS rating.
As noted above, ratings within Canada are largely similar, so the temporary use of BC ratings has minimal impact. However, if the government moves to adopt MPAA ratings, that would have significant impact, due to the more restrictive MPAA ratings. It’s unknown how the use of MPAA ratings in Ontario, if adopted, might affect the CHVRS.
It is likely that classification, in some form, will continue. Protection of children was long used to justify film censorship in the past. Protection of children is the rationale for classification, and the United Nations encourages jurisdictions to have film classification, in order to protect children from harmful film content (a right of children under Article 17 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child). Concerns about protecting children in the wake of Ontario’s decision are already being raised.
Speaking of children’s rights, the UN Convention also requires that children have input in decisions that affect them. This means, among many other things, that children should be involved in film classification systems. An international study I conducted found British Columbia was one of three jurisdictions in Canada that recognized this, and had some input from children. Ontario did not have any input from children. Again, this means using BC classifications is an improvement. The MPAA does not have any input from children.
Apart from protecting children, what difference does classification make? Does it matter who classifies a film, or what those classifications are? Yes. Classification is a subtle form of censorship. To maximize the audience, films must not contain material deemed inappropriate for teenagers. It is not unusual for distributors to quietly cut films, in pre or post production, in order to obtain a lower age rating in a country or province.
Classification is not the only tool for governments to limit film content. In Canada, every province has the right to ban films, for any reason. This was confirmed in the 1970s, when Nova Scotia banned Last Tango in Paris. The Ontario courts ruled in 2005 that prior restraint – mandatory classification – is not constitutional, but to date the Ontario government has ignored that decision. Ontario bans dozens of films every year. These films are usually adult sex films, but they have not been found criminally obscene, and any film can be banned, without any hearing.
The temporary decision to use BC Classifications is a small change, but one wonders what consultations will be done for the new system, and what the result will be. Adoption of the MPAA ratings would benefit no one except large film companies. We may also see more extensive use of the provincial right to ban films.
However, one tries to be optimistic. The Ontario government might follow the lead of Manitoba and Alberta, and declare no films will be banned. They might also consider agencies like the British Board of Film Classification. Though originally created by the film industry, it answers to the national government (and local councils may choose to overrule it in their area). It has good participation of children. Its extensive online information about classified films includes details on any cuts made to achieve a classification. In short, it is film classification that is transparent, open, participatory, and neutral. Ontario could become a model for film classification in Canada. Fingers crossed.