12A: the problem that nobody wants to fix

The 12A rating is a growing problem in UK cinemas. And it's one that seems impossible to fix now...

The summer blockbuster season is well underway now, and as a consequence, a procession of big films are waltzing in and out of multiplexes. Popcorn is duly being sold, although not quite as much as last year.

The live action tentpole files, as is the norm, all arrive with a 12A rating – PG-13 in the US – which in itself has become less of a problem in terms of what’s within the film itself. The umbrella of what a 12A allows is broad enough to allow Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films, for instance, to squeeze through without a cut made. And whilst clearly movies are being shaped with such a rating in mind, I don’t see signs anymore of edges being cut off. Hopefully, the days when you see a pretend Die Hard movie cut back to get a 12A rating are long gone, too. Fingers crossed.

However, what certainly is happening is problems in the multiplexes of Britain. As Mark Kermode has been reiterating on the Kermode & Mayo Film Review programme on whatever Radio Five calls itself this week, the 12A rating was originally introduced by the BBFC very much with the onus still on the 12, and certainly not with a view that anyone under eight, for instance, should be watching materials rating such. That 12A was a way to span the huge gap between a PG certificate film and a 15-rated movie, whilst not losing the warning element over the material within. The 12 certificate had been doing this to a degree since it was introduced at the end of the 1980s. But people were asking the BBFC: what are you supposed to do when a ten-year old wants to see a 12 movie, and you feel they’re ready for it?

The BBFC decided to act. Following a seven week trial that took place in Norwich towards the end of 2001, the BBFC replaced the 12 certificate for cinema classification with 12A (the 12 certificate is still in place for home entertainment releases). The Bourne Identity was the first new film in the UK to get the certificate. Local authorities, though, had been overruling the 12 rating given to the original Spider-Man film just before, and Sam Raimi’s movie was duly reclassified once the new certificate was formally introduced.

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The BBFC opted for 12A to keep things straightforward, having accepted the argument that some 12 films would be tonally appropriate for younger viewers assuming they had an adult to guide them. Furthermore, the rating also brought British certificates in line with US and European equivalents, where anything around the 12 range was deemed advisory, rather than compulsory.

There had been chatter over time about an 8 certificate, or some guidelines to similar effect, but the BBFC also understood the need to keep things enforceable. Cinemas already struggle to police 15 and 18 year olds: how can they start asking eight year olds for ID? And remember, this was in an era where multiplex staff sold you tickets from behind a ticket desk, rather than the concession counter. They’d have no chance now. I’m coming back to that.

When the BBFC enacted the change, it also did so assuming that that parents – or a “responsible adult guardian” would be willing to police what films their offspring watched.

Yeah.

Sadly, they’d seemingly not polled a room of primary school children to see how many had played an 18-rated videogame. Those who haven’t done so in primary school classrooms – at least today – tend to be in the minority (my son was, as an eight-year old, one of only two boys in his class not to have played a variant of Grand Theft Auto). And in the case of the movies, 12A has, over the past 15 years, just become in practice an extension of the PG certificate. That films such as Spectre, The Dark Knight, The Woman In Black and the like – where the material is clearly more geared towards the higher end of the certificate – are being packed out with children.

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Bluntly, 12A is an advisory certificate, and not enough responsible adult guardians are interested in doing the advising.

This isn’t a new problem per se. I’ve told this story before, but I recall when Apollo 13 got its UK cinema release, adorned with a PG certificate. I went to see a Saturday matinee showing at a Liverpool multiplex, to find that parents had dumped their pre-teen kids in there, who duly ran amok, not really interested in a grown-up film about averting a disaster in space. One that just happened not to have cussing, bonking or violence in it, and hence the softer rating. Just because Apollo 13 had a PG certificate, that didn’t make it fodder for a seven year old. But then the cinema, for a subset of parents, is an easy, surrogate babysitter. Not all, I might add. But I’ve sat through enough screenings ruined by parents not controlling their offspring (and I do believe it to be that way around) to confidently suggest this is a sizeable problem.

And it’s even worse today. After all, just because a film has a 12A certificate, that doesn’t mean it’s suitable for a seven year old either. In fact, it almost certainly isn’t. The 12 bit of the certificate is still the crucial part, in terms of guidelines. The official guidance from the BBFC actually reads that “Films classified 12A and video works classified 12 contain material that is not generally suitable for children aged under 12”. A 12A, in theory, is supposed to be a 12. The majority of us know that not to be the case in practice, and it seems there’s very little the BBFC can do about it.

It’s a bigger industry problem. 12A films, such as Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2, Jurassic World, Star Wars: Rogue One et al are being marketed at a broad audience, with merchandise actively targeting children of primary school age. Why wouldn’t a parent and/or child think that an Avengers film isn’t aimed at them, when they’re constantly being flogged the toys, and they see the adverts with other films they see at the movies?

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Look at the trailers for any of those films, and there’s nothing that would either dissuade a child, nor anything that would necessarily put too many adults off taking their kids. I’m also aware that I’m short-changing parents a little here too, in some cases. I’m a parent. I’m fully aware of the sway of nag power, and the ability of a child to catch you at your weakest. In my defence, if my kids utter a syllable or even think about rustling that bag once the film has started, the glare-off quickly begins. And I win. But also, my children nag me to see films I think they may be too young for. I check the films out beforehand, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to pester power.

The BBFC, in its defence here, does try to double bag the 12A certificate by including extended guidance on its website. The trade-off for parents here is that this goes into a bit more detail as to the suitability of a film, whilst generally throwing a few mild spoilers in. But for those genuinely curious about, say, whether Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol 2 is suitable for a six year old, the guidance and information is there. It’s just few choose to seek it out.

In introducing the 12A certificate, what the BBFC has ultimately done is shift the onus in two directions.

Firstly, it’s shifted it heavily to parents. And, as harsh as it may sound, from the experiences I’ve had with under 10s causing mayhem in 12A certificated screenings, some parents shouldn’t be trusted with the decision. It’d be fine if dragging a five year old to see Rogue One only affected said child and their accompanying family. But we all know that it takes one person to ruin a screening. Cinema is, odd for something that involves people in a dark room staring at a screen, a communal experience. And it only takes one person to spoil that.

The onus is also on cinemas, at a point where big chains are rarely actively policing their screens, yet alone are willing to throw anyone out of them who causes trouble. I for one am generally left either suffering a bad screening, or asking for a refund, if alerting staff hasn’t worked.

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One aside here: I do also get the ‘we’re all too British, we never ask someone to shut up’. But why should we have to? The cinema is a leisure activity, a chance to relax, or unwind, or get engrossed in a movie. Why is it my job to have to enforce simple manners in a screening I’ve paid good money for, when actually I just want a few hours without hassle? I’m lucky: my two local cinemas – the Empire in Rubery and the Odeon in Dudley – are better than most, and I’ve seen both clamp down on misbehaviour in the cinema. But they seem to be exceptions.

There are workarounds. If possible, daytime weekday screenings are godsends for people who want to watch 12A movies relatively undisturbed in the cinema. But again, it’s a shame this has to happen.

In America, cinema admissions are expected to be down again this summer, and studios are already investigating ways to bring their films to home formats quicker, without isolating the exhibition circuit. This, though, is circumnavigating a problem, rather than fixing it. The cinema has always been a special place to me, the right place to watch a film, and this is something I’m instilling in my children. I want it always to be so.

Yet I think the BBFC is boxed in on 12A, and it’s the kind of change that once deployed can never be rolled back. As drastic as it sounds, I’m at the point where if a cinema offered a 10p levy on my ticket, just to have someone stand in the room and police it, I’d snap it up in a second.

It’s easy to blame the BBFC for 12A, but it was at a point where it had to do something, and there are now too many interests – usually ending up at an Excel spreadsheet – in maintaining the status quo. Furthermore, it’s been clear that 12A still means 12, and I do get that. It’s just I do think it’s become PG by default in practice. The BBFC has full information on 12, here.

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Still, a few years ago, I was writing pieces suggesting that blockbuster films were suffering by the demand for a broader rating. But I think I called it wrongly. I think that the underlying assumption that 12A is a free for all is one of the biggest, most urgent problems that cinema needs to address.

I see no signs that it will.