Do we still need a government movie-ratings system? Months of delays raise the question | The Star
When Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma opened at TIFF Bell Lightbox in November, critics and regular moviegoers were ready and eager for this Oscar-buzzed memory drama, which had screened to raves at TIFF’s annual festival a few weeks earlier.
The Ontario government wasn’t ready. The Ontario Film Review Board hadn’t yet issued its mandatory rating designed to guide consumers about what they see on screens big and small.
The premiere of Roma, by Alfonso Cuaron, was much anticipated by Ontario film fans but exhibitors’ legally required rating was slow in coming anyhow. (Carlos Somonte / AP)
My four-star review of Roma appeared in the Star’s Nov. 30 print edition with the dreaded acronym “STC” — “Subject to Classification” — in the spot where the provincial rating should have been. The OFRB hadn’t yet gotten around to rating a film that had been talked about all year, and which is now expected to be a leading contender for Best Picture at the Feb. 24 Academy Awards. Roma, which is still at TIFF Bell Lightbox as well as screening online via Netflix, was my pick for the best movie of 2018, as it was for many critics.
Late in the day on Nov. 30, I received word from the OFRB that Roma had been given a rating of 18A, which means the following: “Suitable for persons 18 years of age and older. Persons under 18 may attend but must be accompanied by an adult. May contain: explicit violence, frequent coarse language, sexual activity and/or horror.”
This seemed a little extreme to me — the film has very little sex and just one major scene of violence, recreating Mexico City’s 1971 Corpus Christi Massacre of student protesters — but my editors and I duly changed the film’s rating in the online version of the review to 18A.
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Three days later, I received word from an OFRB official that the board had a second look at Roma and decided to change the rating to 14A, which means this: “Suitable for viewing by persons 14 years of age and older. Persons under 14 must be accompanied by an adult. May contain violence, coarse language, and/or sexually suggestive themes.”
My editors and I once again changed the film’s rating in the online review. The OFRB official I spoke with apologized for the confusion but essentially shrugged it off. That’s just the way it rolls, dude.
This may seem like no big deal, although movie distributors and theatres are required by law to screen only films with an official provincial rating. (There are some exceptions allowed, including blanket exemptions for screenings at film festivals.)
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But the “STC” acronym is being used by necessity a lot more lately, in large part because the OFRB has fallen behind in its ratings. For many years, it posted ratings online via a website search engine that was far from perfect — it seemed to have trouble with film titles beginning with “A” or “The” — but was still a handy resource for movie critics and members of the general public seeking to know what the province’s cinema guardians thought about a film.
This search engine hasn’t been updated since at least September 11 of 2018, midway through TIFF and just as the big fall movie-release season was getting underway. The OFRB search engine ran like a ghost ship until near the end of December, when I pointed the situation out to Mary Henricksen, the head of the Ontario Film Authority, the non-profit corporation that the province has put in charge of the OFRB and administering Ontario’s Film Classification Act.
The search engine has since been taken offline, replaced with a note that the OFRB is “transitioning to a new database,” which sounds like the 21st-century version of “your cheque is in the mail.” There is no fixed date for when the search engine will be updated and go back online, Henricksen told me in an interview.
“I’m really hoping it’s the first quarter of the year,” she said. “We had been hoping it would be (before the end of 2018), but it’s had a couple of hiccups.”
At my request, the OFRB has tried to fill the void by sending me occasional emails with batches of current film ratings, which often don’t arrive in time for me to avoid putting “STC” on my reviews — and theatres like TIFF Bell Lightbox have also had to resort to using the acronym for some movie listings.
With the OFRB database offline, I now trawl through movie ads, trailers and exhibitor websites to find its ratings, which are invariably printed in mice type and buried under several mouse clicks. Ratings come with text advisories — regarding a film’s language, violence, nudity, sexual activity, gory scenes, tobacco use and psychological impact — that are even harder to find.
This leads me to wonder: If the province of Ontario seems in no hurry to get its movie ratings up to date, why should we care about them? Do these ratings still have a function and value?
In an age where people of all ages have access to a vast global cesspool of porn and violence on their smartphones and laptops, why are we worried about whether a film has a “G” rating (“Suitable for viewers of all ages”) or an “R” one (“Admission restricted to persons 18 years of age and older”) or the three in between (PG, 14A and 18A)?
Henricksen said the province still has the requirement to rate films, but along with updating the database it’s trying to become more informative and less censorious about movies. This is a big change from decades past, when the OFRB was called the Ontario Censor Board and it had the mandate and power to ban or order cuts to films it deemed unsuitable for public viewing.
“Our business plan really looks at becoming a trusted, dependable and reliable source of information so that people can make choices about what they want to see,” Henricksen said.
“We’re really actively trying to be less in the business of protecting people from what’s on the screen. It’s more about giving them information. You know what you’re interested in, what you can manage; you make your own choices. It is an attitude shift as well as everything else in the service that we’re trying to provide to Ontarians.”
This is all fine and dandy, but it seems the province’s attitude is shifting rather slowly in regards to getting essential movie ratings info out to the masses. My suggestion to Henricksen that the OFA and OFRB create a temporary online database of ratings for new and current films until the main search engine is fixed was met with the sound of crickets chirping.
Meanwhile, the public really seems to want and need these ratings. I did a small and admittedly unscientific survey in the past week of my friends and relations who have young children — the people that I really think need and want to know a movie’s ratings.
Without exception, they said they look at the ratings to see whether a film is appropriate for their kids. My niece Anne MacDonald, whose 12-year-old daughter Lily loves movies, echoed the thoughts of others I spoke with: “Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a movie is age appropriate when you see a trailer or ad. I check to see if it is a movie that (Lily) can see and also if I would find something I like as well.”
My advice to the province? Simplify the ratings and drop the categories from five to three, indicating whether a film is appropriate for children, teens or adults. Make them easier to understand and insist that exhibitors and theatres display them prominently.
And get that search engine back up and running ASAP.