For this article of the series, Cutting Edge presents a case study examining Britain's introduction of the 12A rating in 2002, as well as looking at Sam Raimi's Spider-Man trilogy. Although much of this may be familiar to some of our readers,
particularly those in the UK, we hope you find it an interesting and stimulating presentation.
A trivia question for you -- what was the first film passed 12A in the United Kingdom? If you answered Spider-Man , then you'd be incorrect. The first film that was passed 12A by the BBFC was Doug Liman's The Bourne Identity, which
was classified on June 24th 2002. It's been said before that Spider-Man was the reason for the introduction of the 12A rating, but that is not the case. So what is the story behind the 12A rating?
Web History: The introduction of the BBFC 12A rating
MPAA PG-13 rating introduced
BBFC 12 rating introduced for cinema
BBFC 12 rating introduced for video
BBFC starts to speak about the possibility of an advisory 12 rating for cinema
BBFC initiate a two month trial of 12A in Norwich cinemas
Spider-Man awarded a 12 rating for cinema
BBFC survey public about proposed 12A rating
Spider-Man released with a 12 certificate in cinemas.
Local councils respond to calls for under 12s to able to see the film. They overrule the BBFC and grant local PG or 12A ratings to Spider-Man.
The Bourne Identity is the first film to be awarded a BBFC 12A rating in advance of the official announcement of the introduction of 12A
BBFC announces 12A rating for cinemas
Spider-Man is re-released with a BBFC 12A rating
The Bourne Identity is released in cinemas with a 12A rating
As we discussed in a
previous episode of the series, in 1984 the MPAA in the United States introduced the PG-13 rating for motion pictures. Prior to this, there had been a rather large gap between the PG and R ratings, and as time went by it became clear that
some films fell into this void. The PG-13, an advisory rating, served to inform parents that a film's content was likely to be unsuitable for children under 13. However, a parent or guardian is not required to accompany a child to a PG-13
Across the waters in the UK, the BBFC introduced a similar rating in 1989 when the 12 certificate was introduced for cinema releases on August 1st. Unlike the American PG-13, the 12 was legally enforced -- no one under the age of 12 was
permitted, even in the presence of an adult. The BBFC trialled the new rating in London for the first time with the release of John Schlesinger's Madame Sousatzka, although the film was officially passed 15 uncut on March 13th. The
first film to receive the new 12 rating was Tim Burton's Batman , which was classified uncut on August 22nd.
The Board's guidelines for 12 were rather stricter at the time of its inception. Regarding bad language, only one sexual expletive was permitted if it was contextually justified. To put that into context, a 12 film today is permitted about
four uses; so long as they are not used aggressively and are, again, contextually justified. The British video industry rejected the idea of introducing the 12 rating for video works for many years. Expanding the law to include the certificate
for video releases would require changes to the Video Recordings Act 1984, which would take time, but this was but one bone of contention for the video industry. As a result, movies that had been classified on film at 12 either had to be cut
for PG on video or raised to 15. If you'd been to see Batman in cinemas for your 12th birthday, you couldn't legally purchase the exact same version of the film on video because it had been raised to 15. The situation frustrated the BBFC for
years, as they remarked in their 1990 Annual Report:
The video industry still opposes the '12' as too permissive because on film it has been seen as revealing too flexible an attitude to swearing. They argue that '15' is preferable because it will prove sufficiently punitive to induce companies
to cut the offending expletive to obtain a 'PG'... The video public is surely badly served by a classification system which denies itself a category option which could solve this sort of problem, and which has proved itself such a welcome and
helpful innovation in the cinema.
The necessary legislation was eventually passed, and the 12 certificate was finally introduced for video works on July 1st 1994.
Andreas Whittam Smith
BBFC President 1997-2002
Proponent of BBFC openness
The 12 rating had proven itself highly successful in the UK throughout the 1990s, where a range of PG-13 Hollywood blockbusters found their natural audience on video thanks to the BBFC's newest age certificate. But all was not entirely well.
For some time, the Board had been receiving complaints from parents who felt they were better suited to decide if a 12 film was suitable for their under 12s. A common example cited by these parents were the James Bond films (all of which had
been passed 12 since 1995) with parents content to let their 10- or 11 year olds enjoy the fantastical nature of the series' violence and action. As a result, in 2000 the BBFC began to consider where the 12 rating could be made advisory for
cinema releases. As the BBFC's president Andreas Whittam Smith stated in the BBFC's Annual Report of 2000:
There are a number of reasons for considering such a change. Either side of 12 years, the maturity of children varies quite widely; parents are the best judges of the degree to which a particular child is sufficiently robust to see material
rated one step beyond 'U' and the existing 'PG'. Cinema managers, too, may have more difficulty in policing entry into '12' rated films than any other category. The appearance and size of a young customer can easily mislead as to age. It is
also worth noting that the United Kingdom differs from most of Western Europe and North America in retaining a mandatory '12' rating.
We have already raised these issues with the representative bodies of the local authorities, the exhibitors and the distributors. All have expressed interest. Now we intend to press forward with further consultation and more precise plans. In
the end, however, it will be public opinion which will have the decisive say.
Towards the end of 2001, the BBFC conducted a two-month trial period in Norwich where all 12-rated cinema releases were classified 'PG-12' and open to children under 12 provided they were accompanied by an adult guardian. The opinions of the
viewing public in Norwich and the surrounding areas were polled by the BBFC and the general consensus was weighted strongly in favour of a new advisory category, on the proviso that all such films required an adult guardian to accompany
children under 12 and that clear descriptions of a film's content were included in publicity materials. This idea was termed 'Consumer Advice' by the BBFC and would be displayed in the form of a single sentence -- for example, "Contains one use of strong language and moderate horror."
Although the BBFC could not legally enforce this, they were hopeful that exhibitors and advertisers would be open to the idea.
Following the 'PG-12' trials, the BBFC carried out a national survey in the May of 2002 asking cinemagoers about the possibility of introducing the new rating. Over 70% of those polled were in favour of the idea and, although they were
initially reluctant, cinema exhibitors agreed to displaying Consumer Advice on advertising materials. On August 30th 2002, the BBFC introduced its new rating for cinema releases, which was now termed 12A. The rating immediately replaced the 12
rating on all currently available films in cinemas and would replace the 12 rating on classified films going forward. In terms of permitted content, the 12A rating is identical to 12, with the number indicating that the film is suitable for
those 12 and over and the 'A' signifying that adult accompaniment is required for those under the age of 12.
So, that's a brief history of the introduction of the 12A rating. But where does Spider-Man fit into this? We know it wasn't the first 12A film, so why is the film so inextricably linked with the rating?
Web Crawler: Spider-Man
Spider-Man was first submitted to the BBFC earlier in 2002 (only a few months before the 12A was introduced) with a request from the distributors for a PG rating, but the BBFC refused to pass the film at PG due to the film's levels of
personalized violence and its revenge theme. Two scenes in particular stand out as being particularly brutal; these being Spider-Man's attack on the carjacker and the final fight between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. In the former, Spider-Man
rams the villain's head through a window and breaks his wrist, whereas the final confrontation features repeated heavy blows with loud impact sounds in the fight between the two combatants.
The BBFC's decision (although quite clearly logical) confounded the distributor's expectations, who had already begun marketing the film to younger viewers. As the BBFC commented in their 2002 Annual Report:
Advance publicity and marketing can create an expectation that a film will get a particular rating... and the pre-publicity strongly suggested that this was going to be a children's film. However, the Marvel comic hero dealt out punishment in
the film in a style that made a 'PG' rating impossible and at times challenged the '12' Guidelines for violence. Many children who had collected the associated Spider-man toys were inevitably disappointed when the film was released at '12', but
the BBFC was in no doubt that the quality of the personal violence and the retribution theme placed the film towards the top of the '12' category, where it was contained by the fantasy context and its clear moral intentions.
Spider-Man was thus classified 12 uncut by the BBFC on April 15th 2002 and released on June 14th. The BBFC Consumer Advice on the film quite clearly stated the film's content, remarking that it contained:
Some scenes of strong fantasy violence.
Following its decision, the BBFC received 51 letters of complaint from members of the public, arguing that the film's rating should have been PG instead. The Board stood by its decision, and some of the same members of the public wrote back to
the BBFC remarking that they had changed their minds after seeing the film. The BBFC actually classifies films on behalf of UK councils, which have the statutory responsibility for licensing local cinemas. Although rare, councils are free to
overrule the BBFC's decisions on film, and after the publicity surrounding the 12 rating given to Spider-Man five percent of local authorities bowed to protests from the public and issued the film with a PG rating or their own 'PG-12' rating; the
latter of which was issued with a requirement that under-12s be accompanied by an adult.
Following the successful introduction of the 12A rating, Columbia Tristar decided to re-release the film in British cinemas with this new rating, and TV commercials proudly boasted of the fact that under 12s could now see the film. Perhaps it is
the memories of such a potent advertising campaign that leads people to believe that Spider-Man was the first 12A film, but The Bourne Identity beats it by two months. Today, Spider-Man remains at 12 on video for its strong violence.
As a quick aside, Consumer Advice had been widely adapted by the British video industry since the mid-90s in a colourful grid form, but it would go on to become widely used on cinema releases following the introduction of the 12A. Today, it is
known as BBFCinsight and appears on the Board's website and mobile app, advertising materials for all films and Blu-ray packaging. The 12A legacy lives on.
Web Censorship: Spider-Man 2
Spider-Man 2 was released in 2004, and although the first film had passed uncut with a 12 rating, the situation regarding the sequel in Britain is interesting for different reasons. Before a formal submission, the filmmakers presented a
rough cut of the film for an advice viewing to the BBFC, in order to see if any changes had to be made to the film to achieve their desired PG rating.
Cut Scenes: Spidey vs Ock
Following this advice viewing, the BBFC informed the distributors that the sight of a brief head-butt delivered by Spider-Man to the film's villain Doc Ock would need to be removed. In order to facilitate this change, the filmmakers
substituted the head-butt with some alternate footage that shows Spider-Man punching Doc Ock in the face.
Following the removal of the offending combat move, Spider-Man 2 was submitted to the BBFC for classification and was passed without further cuts on June 18 th 2004 with a PG rating for "moderate fantasy violence." Like its predecessor,
Spider-Man 2 attracted some complaints following its release. In comparison to the first film, the complaints this time were centred on the film being classified at too low a rating. In response, the BBFC commented in their 2004 Annual Report
When Spider-Man 2 came in to be classified it was clear that the tone of the film was very different. It was lighter and had more comedy than the first film, and the violence had less impact owing partly to toned down sound effects.
Nevertheless, 20 people felt that it was too strong for 'PG'. Presumably these people agreed with the '12' rating for the first film.
However, the film was also submitted for an IMAX classification; a film format capable of displaying images at a greater size and resolution than conventional cinema systems. Although the film had been passed at PG for regular theatrical
showings, the BBFC upgraded the film's rating to 12A specifically for IMAX showings, noting at the time that:
When classifying a film for cinema release the Board carefully considers the impact of the special effects and sound track on the likely audience. In the case of SPIDER-MAN 2 the Board believes that the huge screens and powerful sound systems in
IMAX cinemas, designed to deliver an intense cinematographic experience, mean that some young children may find the film more 'scary' than they would if they saw it at a 'traditional' cinema. The '12A' rating for IMAX cinemas is designed to help
parents with young or sensitive children to make sure that their trip to the cinema is not a distressing experience.
As a result, the cut PG version of Spider-Man 2 was classified 12A in IMAX format on August 25th 2004. The UK version was also submitted for a DVD classification and was passed PG on August 27th . Sadly, Columbia Tristar saw fit to release the
cut UK version on DVD in almost all major territories, including Europe, Australia and even Hong Kong. As a result, the United States is one of a small number of countries that received the uncut version on DVD. Additionally, a blooper reel was
also dropped from the UK DVD special features, as this would have raised the overall rating to a 12 due to its bleeped strong language, but the feature was available on releases outside of Europe. From here on in, the home video situation around
the world gets even more complex.
To tie-in with the release of Spider-Man 3 in 2007, Sony Pictures released Spider-Man 2.1 on DVD; an extended cut of the original film. Although this extended version of the film consists almost entirely of additional exposition and
non-contentious footage, it does restore at least one violent moment that may have been removed for a PG-13 rating.
Cut Scenes: Ock Op
A very brief addition occurs during Doc Ock's destruction of the operating theatre, when one of his mechanical arms forces a nurse into a lamp. The extended cut includes two additional shots of the man being electrocuted, which do not appear
in the original PG-13 version:
Spider-Man 2.1 was passed PG by the BBFC without cuts on April 2nd 2007. However, this version of the film was pre-cut to remove the head-butt and it was this version that was released on DVD throughout the world -- including in the United States
where the incident had caused no classification issues back in 2004. In other words, all DVD versions of Spider-Man 2.1 from 2007 are missing the head-butt removed at the behest of the BBFC.
Spider-Man 2 was later issued on Blu-ray in the UK as part of the Spider-Man High Definition Trilogy box set. This box set contained both Spider-Man 2 and Spider-Man 2.1, but the real bonus here was that both versions of the film were fully uncut
and restored the head-butt missing from previous releases. The two versions do not appear to have been passed uncut by the BBFC before the release of this box set, and this is further evidenced by the MPAA ratings screen which plays before the
film. It would appear that Sony simply used the uncut American master disc to press the UK Blu-rays.
Spider-Man 2 was resubmitted in its PG-13 theatrical version to the BBFC (with the head-butt intact) for a new classification in 2009. With the BBFC having relaxed their internal rules about imitable techniques, the film was passed uncut with a
PG rating on April 1st of that year. The Spider-Man trilogy was re-released on Blu-ray in 2012 and once again Sony included both the theatrical- and the 2.1 extended version of the film, and even threw in the blooper reel missing from the
original DVD release. Despite this, both versions of the film were missing the head-butt, in spite of the fact that the BBFC had waived the cut from the theatrical version in 2009!
To sum up, here is the current home video situation regarding Spider-Man 2 and how you can get your hands on the uncut releases of both versions of the film on DVD or Blu-ray:
On DVD, you can import the uncut theatrical version of the film on Region 1 from eBay.com or Amazon.com. We would recommend the Superbit version for its stellar picture quality and the DTS 5.1 soundtrack, although the special edition is
recommended if you'd prefer the extra features and the blooper reel. There are no uncut DVD versions of the 2.1 Extended Edition that we know of.
On Blu-ray, you can seek out the Spider-Man trilogy that was released in 2007. The UK release, with its blue cover, is Region Free and has uncut versions of both cuts of the film. The American release from 2007 is also uncut and Region Free, but
the 2012 release is Region A locked.
The Mastered in 4K releases from America, Australia and Japan contain the theatrical version only but they are all uncut. The Japanese edition is Region A locked, whilst the other two releases are Region Free. The 2012 release in Australia
contains both cuts of the film and is also Region Free, but it is missing the head-butt and should be avoided.
The Uncensored Web: Spider-Man 3
Spider-Man 3 was released in the UK on May 4th 2007. Its classification at the hands of the BBFC was the most straightforward of Sam Raimi's trilogy, with the BBFC passing the film uncut with a 12A rating on April 17th 2007, noting that
Contains strong fantasy violence and moderate horror.
The film was later passed uncut with a 12 rating for DVD and Blu-ray on August 1st 2007, with the BBFC commenting in their Annual Report for that year that:
Many blockbusters aimed at a family audience are placed at '12A' and 2007 was no exception, with Spider-Man 3 finding [its] natural home here, and containing what was occasionally strong violence and threat, but in settings which were clearly
The original uncut version is available on DVD and Blu-ray in both the UK and the United States.
Web Forecasts: Advisory Ratings
Ireland's advisory15A rating
The 12A rating has been something of a blessing and a curse for UK cinema-going audiences. On the one hand, it has permitted the exercising of parental responsibility when deciding if a child can cope with material intended for 12 year olds and
over, and has undoubtedly increased the box office takings of films carrying a 12A certificate. For example, how many extra tickets were sold for all of the Bond films released since Die Another Day because dads took their 10 year old sons
to a screening? But in some instances, the new rating has come with a price. It is not an uncommon occurrence for filmmakers to tailor their films to fit the 12A bracket, usually through the use of advice screenings that sometimes lead to cuts
being made at the suggestion of the BBFC. Would a film like A Good Day to Die Hard have been changed so extensively for a 12A rating in the days before such an advisory category was introduced? We shall never know. As it stands, the 12A
has at least brought us closer in line to the rest of the English-speaking world and its film classifications. Perhaps one day we shall see the 15 or 18 ratings for cinema releases become advisory, as is the case in Ireland which has a 15A
rating. Australia's MA15+ rating is a corresponding equivalent, and the American R rating is, in effect, a 17A, where under-17s must be accompanied by an adult.
Are advisory classifications the way forward? Interestingly enough, former BBFC President Andrea Whittam Smith gave an interview to the Independent on Sunday newspaper a few days before leaving the Board in July 2002 where he predicted that:
In the very long term, all ratings will be advisory. It will all happen in a 10-year-period.
Those 10 years, of course, have long since passed and the 15 and 18 ratings are still legally restricted. The notion to make these ratings advisory has been discussed internally by the BBFC since then, but as of now they are reluctant to make the
15 or the 18 ratings advisory for cinema releases in the UK.
Cutting Edge Video, Season Three, Episode 44: Spiderman meets the 12A rating
Now in High Definition
All articles are original works compiled by Gavin Salkeld, with occasional help from a small team of researchers. Particular thanks are due to the BBFC for their diligent and helpful explanations of their interventions.