Film ratings

Why we age rate films

Why do we do it?

All films shown in the UK need an age rating by law.

What are the ratings?

The BBFC rate films before they are released in cinemas. These days there are five certificates for cinema films

  • U
  • PG
  • 12A
  • 15
  • 18

In theory, anyone can see a U or a PG, although you and your parents and teachers are encouraged to think carefully about whether a PG film will be suitable for you if you are younger than 8 or 9 years old.

With 12A films you must be 12 or older to go and see them, unless you have an adult with you. It is up to that grown-up to decide that you won’t be upset or disturbed by anything you see.

Anyone wanting to release a film, video or DVD for showing in cinemas or watching at home has to make sure that their film has a BBFC age rating symbol. It's against the law to try and sell videos and DVDs without this. Films that you see at the cinema also have to display the right rating.

When was the BBFC started?

The BBFC was created by the film industry in 1912, long before anyone had even heard of Harry Potter or Pixar. It wanted to make sure that all of its films, (videos and DVDs had not been invented then), were checked on behalf of the whole country. Cinemas needed a licence to show films because film stock burns very easily and there was a big fire risk.

Local councils, who were, and still are, in charge of cinemas up and down the country, grew to accept the BBFC's decisions. Even today, for films shown in cinemas, councils have the power to ignore any decision made by the BBFC and can give them their own age ratings. For example, in 1993, the comedy film Mrs.Doubtfire was given a 12 classification by the BBFC. Some councils disagreed with our decision and gave the film a PG.

An important change came with the arrival of video in the early 1980s. In 1984, a new law was passed, The Video Recordings Act, which put the BBFC in charge of classifying all videos for home use. The law asks Compliance Officers to make sure that works are classified for appropriate audiences and make sure that they show nothing that might be harmful to people, especially young children.

What does all this mean exactly?

Well, for example, very scary or gory horror films that might upset younger children are unlikely to be found at U, PG or 12A/12. As for harmful material, the BBFC has to note any dangerous or criminal activities on a video or DVD, such as scenes that show, in detail, how to hurt people or how to break into cars. Scenes in which children are encouraged to do dangerous things, or take part in activities which could hurt them or those around them. Scenes like this may also be cut from the video before it's released to the public – though this is very rare.

The Compliance Officers at the BBFC also have to be aware of other laws, such as those which protect animals (The Animals Act, passed in 1937). It is against the law in this country to show films or videos in which an animal has been harmed during the production. The owners of any film showing such a scene are asked to remove it (cut it out) before a certificate is given and the film is allowed to be released.

Filmmakers have always been allowed to get advice from the BBFC about the age rating their film will probably get. Sometimes they send in the film before it is finished, and Senior Compliance Officers watch it without special effects, music or other details. The Senior Compliance Officers can give a good idea of the rating the film will probably get based on our guidelines. If the filmmakers decide the likely rating is too high, they may decide to change the film, eg by removing scenes or changing the special effects, so they are more likely to get the lower rating they want. This is called a ‘cut for category’ and is the most common sort of cut made to films in the UK.