The BBFC don't always get things right.
They've got an astonishingly tough job, and have to juggle the conflicting whims of politicians and the public whilst coping with regular bashings from the right wing press for being too lenient and the left wing press for being too censorial. They have to cope with changing technology and viewing patterns, and reinvent themselves fairly constantly to remain relevant in a changing landscape. They've come a long way from the dark days of the 90s (when those pressures led them to make some very shaky decisions indeed), and if it wasn't for the events of the last few days I'd probably be writing a fairly positive article about them. Other than the weird classification of Frozen (because if that's a PG then there's no earthly point in the U existing) I haven't had any argument with them for a long time.
Until this week, when they announced a potentially catastrophic change to their policy.
Not catastrophic to the big boys, of course. Not catastrophic to the Harry Potters or Star Treks of this world. As usual, shit rolls downhill towards the guys at the bottom.
In fact, this change of BBFC policy would probably be unnoticed by everybody except small independent distributors and the filmmakers whose films are distributed by them.
Filmmakers like me.
There's a really intelligent and well-written breakdown of what this change is and why it matters over at MovieMail. Basically, the BBFC are changing the rules regarding what material on a DVD release can be exempt from classification, meaning that documentary and behind-the-scenes footage will now incur substantial per-minute fees from which they were previously exempt. This is being put together under the aegis of protecting children from being exposed to rude music videos on DVD (and, seriously, when the hell was the last time a kid watched a music video for the first time on DVD? There's a thing called YouTube which I understand is very popular nowadays), but will have a serious impact for independent distributors who depend on substantial extras on the releases of minority interest DVDs to give them even the slightest chance of breaking even in a difficult marketplace.
An example, you say? Ok, then.
In 2006, I shot a movie called KillerKiller in a disused mental hospital in Essex. It's a spin on slasher movies, in which a group of incarcerated serial killers are picked off one by one by a demon that takes the form of traditional horror 'victims' (a cheerleader, a babysitter, a student and so on). It's a cool little movie that got released in most territories (we even got a short cinema release in Germany) after we signed all worldwide rights to a company in LA. For long and boring reasons the movie never came out in the UK, though, which was frustrating for a UK filmmaker. We got the rights back a little while ago, and shortly afterwards we signed the movie to awesome UK label Cine du Monde.
Now, Cine du Monde were aware that this movie had already been released all over the world except the UK, and that a big percentage of our niche target market might have already seen it through imports, festivals or torrents. To make up for this, we laid plans to put together a kick-ass special edition which would tempt the importers to double-dip. In addition to a Director's Cut re-edit of the film itself, we put together a great big list of extras including, among other things, an hour-long fly-on-the-wall documentary covering the shoot itself and a 62 minute film of a talk I gave at the Horror on Sea festival last year about independent filmmaking.
Here's the talk we intended to include. It's got some clips from KillerKiller that are NSFW (partial nudity and violence) and a bit of swearing - but let's not forget that this would have been included on a DVD where the entirety of KillerKiller itself would already have been rated.
And here lies the problem.
I'm pretty sure the movie will get an 18 when it goes through the BBFC (largely due to some particularly salty dialogue rather than the gore or nudity). It's not a long film, and the fee calculator suggests that the rating will cost about £645. Under the old guidelines, that would be it. Cine du Monde would be able to add the documentary and the talk from the film festival as exempt material, pay the BBFC their fee and get the disc out to our small but perfectly formed audience base.
Under the new guidelines, they'd apparently need to get the festival talk rated as well unless it only contained PG rated material (despite the disc overall presumably being an 18 already). And the fly-on-the-wall documentary too, with its moderate swearing. So, another 536 for the festival talk and 522 for the documentary. Throw in the other bits and bobs (including a 'look back' short and some video diaries) and we could be looking at overall BBFC charges of close to £2000 rather than £645 to get the whole special edition certified (and don't even start me on their policy regarding commentaries).
Thing is, this kind of small release has knife-edge economics in terms of breaking even. Cine du Monde would need to shift hundreds and hundreds more units to cover the additional charges, and I wouldn't blame them if they decided that the release just wasn't viable any more and ditched it. Releasing a vanilla version instead (with no extras) leaves absolutely no incentive whatsoever for the people who've already seen the movie to pick it up again; again, not the most enticing prospect for a distributor to release. Another of my films, The Devil's Music, is in exactly the same boat regarding extras, as is Al Ronald's awesome existential western Jesus vs The Messiah, which was finally due for release in 2014 after years and years as a bit of a lost movie
I delivered the hard drive full of KillerKiller master materials to Cine du Monde last month. This change of policy has totally sideswiped me; I've worked to get this damn movie out in my home country since 2007, and now it still might not happen due to what is either an ill-thought out but well-meaning piece of legislation or a cynical cash-grab that will be unnoticed by the majors but utterly screw over those who can least afford it.
The BBFC don't always get things right, and this is one of those occasions.
If you care about independent movies, make some noise before they shut us up forever.
Follow Pat Higgins on Twitter: www.twitter.com/zcarstheme