Spectre, and the 12A issue

Following a modern trend, Spectre's distributor sought BBFC advice on trimming the film for a 12A certificate in the UK...

It was revealed last week that Spectre joins a list of movies that have been slightly amended prior to getting an official certificate from the BBFC.

This is down to a service that the BBFC offers: it’ll look at an early version of your feature, and advise what certificate it’s going to get. Then the distributor has the option of asking what cuts would be needed to get a softer certificate. It’s entirely up to the distributor from that point what it wants to do, and the BBFC does not insist on the cuts. The decision rests with the distribution company concerned.

In recent times, films such as Taken 2, A Good Day To Die Hard, The Equalizer and A Walk Among The Tombstones have each taken advantage of this, the first two coming down to 12A ratings, the latter two earning 15s. Sadly, as disliked as this practice is, it is commercially effective as a rule. The UK was one of the few territories around the world, for instance, where A Good Day To Die Hard performed well at the box office.

But now it’s 007’s turn to step into the limelight.

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The latest James Bond adventure, Spectre, also went through this process. Sony submitted an early version of the film, and was advised that a 15 certificate was set to be granted in that form. Two recommended snips later, and Spectre is being released this week in the UK with a 12A sticker on it.

Here’s the official post from the BBFC:

“During post-production, the distributor sought and was given advice on how to secure the desired classification. Following this advice, certain changes were made prior to submission.

Note: The following text may contain spoilers

This film was originally seen for advice in an unfinished version. The company was advised it was likely to be classified 15 but that their preferred 12A could be obtained by making reductions in a scene of violence and in another scene showing the aftermath of a violent act. When the film was submitted for formal classification, acceptable reductions had been made in both scenes and the film was classified 12A.”

It’s a useful process for studios this, because they can proclaim that their films have been marked uncut by the BBFC. By the letter of things, that’s true. Because, basically, they’d had a dry run at getting their certificate when Spectre was finally submitted, Sony knew it had its crucial 12A in the bag.

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And most of us know all too well that – even though 15 and 18 certificate films sometimes break through into major blockbuster territory – it’s 12A and PG-13 where the hard cash is easier to find.

We’ve explored many times before on this site about the drive for 12A/PG-13 ratings for films that aren’t always as family-friendly as the may appear. And it’s be fair to say that Spectre very much falls into that category.

Spectre has been given its 12A for “moderate violence, threat”, and I’d argue that’s some understatement. There’s a little bit of the Bambi effect at work here, in that one or two crucial moments aren’t seen, but are heavily implied and heard. But still, even one or two people involved with the current Bond have apparently expressed surprise that it’s got such a relatively soft rating.

I don’t want to spoil the film here, so I’ll imply two particularly difficult sequences rather than fully describe them.

One comes very early on in the film, where Dave Bautista’s ruthless Mr Hinx proves his villainy in quite bloody style. And then later on, there’s the usual Bond interrogation sequence, although in this case it could have been lifted out of a horror movie.

In fact, both of those sequences could have done. The latter example, ironically, is a victim of sorts to just how well it’s done, with the patience of director Sam Mendes paying real dividends.

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Yet they’re both intense, excellently shot, and chilling. I can only talk for my own children, one of whom is just on the cusp of 12, but Spectre is one of the few 12As I’m not letting them near. I fully appreciate that’s each to their own (my eldest devours as much as he can, and has a good resistance for material I would have struggled with at his stage), of course, and every child is different. But I think Spectre is a brutal, intense piece of cinema, and my personal view is that a 12A rating – even by the BBFC’s guidelines – does not seem reflective of the film’s content.

That said, it’s an impossible job being the BBFC, and the organisation does appear backed into a corner with 12A. The commercial pressure to have a rating that allows anyone to see a film without the movie having its edges cut off is immense.

Thus, whilst 12A does have a 12 in it – and I’m coming to that in a second – it’s increasingly being used as shorthand for ‘anyone can go’. Anyone who tries to watch a 12A film in a multiplex on a Saturday afternoon will be able to support that claim.

It is important though that 12A is still 12 at heart. A 12A doesn’t mean a film is suitable for the under 12s, it just means that they can watch it. Furthermore, nobody is suggesting that Spectre is a children’s film. It really isn’t.

Yet that’s not the argument, really. Because 12A means, in the cold light of things, almost universal access. So whilst responsible parents are likely to read up on the film or check the movie out in advance, some will do a blind ticket buy, persuaded by perhaps a love of Bond, or the huge swathe of advertising.

Some, let’s go with ‘less responsible’ parents will, sadly, inevitably treat the movie as a surrogate babysitter, and Spectre’s rating affords them that opportunity.

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One further thing: a 12 year old in the 2010s has been exposed to far more material than a child growing up, say, in the 1980s, and the softer ratings films get do reflect that.

To the credit of the BBFC, it does provide extra insight on films such as Spectre, where parents and guardians needs a little extra information. In the case of this film, it’s a little bit spoiler-y as a consequence (you can read it here), but it is frank about what’s going to be appearing before your eyeballs. It uses this too to in part justify how it’s arrived at its decision.

However, not for the first time, it does feel like 12A is a certificate that’s torn between serving the movie industry, and serving people looking for genuine guidance on whether a film is suitable or not.

I might be wrong, but I suspect Spectre’s 12A certificate may yet cause something of a backlash. Just in time for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 in a few week’s time. Which, given the content of the rest of the book it’s based on, might just have a 12A fight on its hands too…