It is a typical quango (quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisation): not part of a government industry but not fully free from government control either. Anti-censorship academic Julian Petley argues that the BBFC effectively reflects the will of the government without the government being accountible for their actoins. Like OfCom, the government set out the duties in legislation which they have to enforce: the 1984 Video Recordings Act greatly expanded their remit to cover video.
The BBFC is self-funding, though the cost of compulsory rating (charged per minute, so DVD extras can add considerable costs) is criticised by some Indie distributors who say it is unfair on low budget releases with limited box office/sales potential, to the point (£2-3k) where they sometimes can't afford a separate UK release.
Local authorities each have the power to overturn a BBFC rating for their own area, a power rarely used but has been seen with:
- Spiderman (2002) - reduced from 12 to PG by several, helping to usher in the 12A rating which allows younger children to see such films if accompanied by an adult
- This is England (2006) - Warp's social realist Indie production, a typically low £1.5m budget, got a controversial 18 rating principally because of a racist violent scene at the end (which causes the young protagonist to reject the racist path, but the moral message was deemed unimportant); in this case it was left-wing papers leading the press outcry and some councils agreed, giving it the 15 the producers had originally anticipated
- The Dark Knight (2008) - is it a coincidence that the $185m tentpole production from Warner Bros, one of the big six Hollywood conglomerates that dominate global cinema, got a favourable 12-rating despite being so violent and indeed marketed on its realism? The BBFC argues this was cartoon in style and so did't require a 15, an interesting contrast with (which carried an important social message and representation funded by the UK government through the UK Film Council but which lost any hope of significant box office with this rating - in contrast to the ultra-violence of American comic book characters). 2016's Batman v Superman was also heavy on the violence, if less realistic, and got a 12. Backed by a prominent campaign in the Daily Mail and other right-wing papers, several councils re-rated Dark Knight as a 15.
- 1973's Last House on the Left was screened whilst effectively banned by the BBFC, as some local authorities granted it an 18 for limited screening nearly 30 years after it was banned - the embarassment this caused the BBFC likely contributed to its getting a belated 18 BBFC rating.
In line with the consistent findings of the BBFC’s public consultations and The Human Rights Act 1998, at 18 the BBFC’s guideline concerns will not normally override the principle that adults should be free to choose their own entertainment with some exceptions.
The BBFC does of course have pressure groups committed to securing tougher censorship, notably MediaWatch, the successor organisation to Mary Whitehouse's National Viewers and Listeners Association, used by the government and BBFC to help build a sense of public demand for what became the 1984 Video Recordings Act (that includes a specific requirement to consider the greater 'harm' that might be done by accessing home media, with the ability to pause and rewind!).
Independent distributor October Films purchased the rights to the film for one million dollars after its screening at the Toronto Film Festival. The film received an NC-17 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, which resulted in the poor box office performance of a film. Parker and Stone attempted to negotiate with the organization on what to delete from the final print, but the MPAA would not give specific notes. The duo later theorized that the organization cared less because it was an independent distributor which would bring it significantly less money. [Wiki]
In general terms, it appears that the US ratings board, representing the views of the American public, has a lower tolerance for nudity or sex scenes ... Conversely, the UK public seems to have a lower tolerance for aggression [BBFC]
NIPPLEGATE + AMERICAN PSYCHO
The video below, from 2018, gives a reminder of the 'nipplegate' 'scandal' (Janet Jackson's 'wardrobe malfunction' at the Superbowl half-time show, with one boob exposed - the nipple was actually covered). I raise this as it exemplified the very strong difference between US and UK censorship and cultural attitudes. The MPAA is toughest on sexual content, while the BBFC are toughest on violent content - especially sexual violence.
So, the BBFC banned a long list of 'video nasties' especially because of their linkage of sex with violence, and enforced many cuts on films like Enter the Dragon despite its 18 rating, whereas the MPAA looked at American Psycho (passed uncut by the BBFC) and insisted on cutting a sex scene. The sample from a handout quiz makes the point...