Children at risk from film rating agency shutdown, former provincial watchdog says

Children at risk from film rating agency shutdown, former provincial watchdog says

Ontario children are at risk of seeing more sex and violence in movies due to the closure of the Ontario Film Authority, says Bruce Davis, the province’s former top film watchdog.

The OFA officially ceased operations Tuesday, following last week’s announcement by the Ford government that it wants to “reduce unnecessary burden on the film industry” by modernizing and streamlining how movies are classified and rated.

The province says it will “look to the industry” for advice on creating a new system by the spring of 2020, with ratings from B.C. to be used at Ontario theatres in the meantime.

The OFA shutdown is “100 per cent an industry-led move,” Davis said in an interview. It removes consumer protection provided to parents and families by the agency and its film classification branch, the Ontario Film Review Board, which he headed from 2014-2016.

Davis said he and his citizen film screeners, many of them parents themselves, often had to push back against film distributors and exhibitors who demanded more lenient ratings, such as a PG (parental guidance) rather than an 18A (under age 18 requires adult accompaniment).

“I really don’t trust industry to look out for those really important conversations that parents and children have to have,” said Davis, who is also a former chair and trustee of the Toronto District School Board.

“Industry’s job is to try to maximize faces and eyeballs on screens. If it were up to the industry, the trailer for “Fifty Shades of Grey” would be shown to children. That’s how they operate.”

That scenario actually happened in 2015, Davis said, when Universal Pictures was bringing its film adaptation of the bestselling sex-and-bondage novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” to Ontario movie theatres. Universal wanted a PG rating for the trailer, which contained numerous risqué scenes.

“They wanted it rated PG so they could show the trailer in PG films like ‘Annie.’ We rated that trailer 18A, saying it shouldn’t be seen by PG kids, and (industry players) lobbied us, of course. That was not uncommon,” Davis said.

“Their job is to make sure as many people see that trailer as possible and we got in their way. That’s why the film review board is gone — because the industry doesn’t want people setting those norms.”

There’s certainly been no outcry from the movie industry regarding the province’s shutdown of its film ratings operation, which decades ago had the controversial power to censor and cut films. In more recent times, its powers were largely limited to classifying and rating.

“Good riddance — they should have been demolished years ago after they censored ‘The Tin Drum,’” said Ron Mann, a Toronto filmmaker and distributor. Mann’s Films We Like company has brought such festival prize winners as “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” and “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” to Toronto screens.

The trend of the movie industry in recent years has been away from government control of film and towards industry self-regulation. In the U.S., the movie ratings of the Motion Picture Association are determined by panels of citizen screeners, as they were until this week in Ontario, but the MPA is run by Hollywood movie studios and streaming organizations like Netflix.

Davis says he lobbied for a national film classification agency while he was at the OFRB, but found there was “no appetite” for it from the Liberal government of the day, which instead further distanced itself from film ratings by creating the Ontario Film Authority in 2015, an arm’s-length agency that had many industry members on its board.

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There is still a need for government oversight of movies, Davis argued, even in an age when people can easily access porn and violence on their smartphones.

“If you just say there are no rules, then you can basically put anything you want on the film screens, on TV and on the internet.”

Peter Howell

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