Friday, 27 September 2013

FEATURE: Opening The Archives To The UK Public - Can the BBFC do more to help?

I have a problem with the British Board of Film Classification.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't anything about censorship. No, in this day and age I actually think they do a very good job on the whole. Whilst their previous incarnation as the British Board of Film Censors has been the butt of much just criticism, the BBFC of today does, in my opinion, do a good job of handling potentially offensive and inappropriate material and, aside from the odd occasion when I raise an eyebrow because I feel their classification of a film has been either too extreme or too lenient, I think they do well balancing their commitments as a body in the public interest, a guiding contact for the industry, and at times a buffer between industry and government. 

My issue with the BBFC is a very different one. You see, my argument is that the way they currently operate is having a very negative impact on the access that you and I have to our own rich film making heritage, not to mention the film heritage of every other nation that has ever had access to a camera.

In a nutshell, it all comes down to money. Unless you're sure of selling a very large number of copies, putting out a DVD or Blu-Ray is a financially risky business, and a big chunk of the initial cost is down to the BBFC. Allow me to illustrate my point with an example...

You start up a small distribution firm, to put out obscure film and TV from the archives. You know it's never going to make you a millionaire, but that's not why you do it. You are passionate about sharing stuff that you find interesting, and making it available for rediscovery. Now, let’s say for the sake of argument that you have managed to secure the rights to an obscure gem of a movie. You know it won’t shift thousands upon thousands of units, but it does have a cult appeal and may sell about 1,000 copies. For your proposed release you have gathered together the following elements:

The film itself - 90 minutes
The original trailer - 2 minutes
An interview with the director - 25 minutes
An interview with the lead actor - 20 minutes
Fan footage from the set - 12 minutes
Poster and stills gallery - 3 minutes

Total running time - 152 minutes.

At the time of writing, the cost of getting a DVD release classified by the BBFC is £6 per minute of footage submitted, plus a handling fee of £75. The cost of submitting your complete package for classification is £987. Nothing more than pocket change if you are a Hollywood major studio submitting your latest blockbuster, which has already been pre-ordered by every major retailer to the tune of hundreds of thousands of units, but if you’re a small independent? You’ll already be asking yourself if you’ll make your money back on this release. Oh, I almost forgot, you also have to pay a further £35.90 to the VPRC (Video Packaging Review Committee) to get the cover artwork approved. Throw in the costs of manufacturing, printing, licensing for any music rights issues, securing the rights to re-issue the film in the first place... It's a veritable minefield. Even if there is a small profit, chances are your little distributor will have gone bust by the time any pennies come in.

So... if you ever wondered why that interesting obscurity you caught on late-night TV all those years ago is unavailable in the UK, or that little known TV series which has nonetheless embedded itself in your memory remains frustratingly impossible to obtain, this may provide your answer. And, if the industry continues to ask why consumers are so intent on getting DVD/Blu-Ray players which will circumvent regional coding, and continue to order titles from overseas, then the following may provide their answer...

In the USA, Warner Bros. took what I felt was a bold step in making more obscure material available to film fans when they launched their Warner Archive offshoot. For those who are unfamiliar with this, it is a Movies-On-Demand service, whereby the customer selects the film they want, and WB burn the film on to a recordable DVD and print the sleeve to order. This avoids any concern over a poorly selling title leaving the distributor with piles of unsold stock gathering dust in a warehouse, and opens up all sorts of goodies to the public; Golden age musicals, gritty film noirs, silent gems ripe for rediscovery, even some of the lesser known Hanna-Barbera cartoons. The range of titles is full of potential new discoveries.

It's a business model which has proven to be a success. Since WB launched the service in 2009, Columbia/Sony, MGM, Universal, Disney and 20th Century-Fox have all launched similar services, with Paramount licensing some of their back catalogue for WB to make available. Now, wouldn't it be great if these services were available to the UK, and if we could also open up our own cinematic heritage for rediscovery in such a way? Ah, hang on...

Every title would need to be reclassified by the BBFC. £6 a minute + £75 handling fee + £35.90 to get the packaging approved.

The way in which the BBFC is currently funded by the industry makes the movies-on-demand model completely financially unviable in the UK, and that is a great shame. Is there a solution? Well...

Let's just suppose that the BBFC no longer charges an up-front fee for home-viewing classification. Instead, an agreement is reached whereby the distributor pays a small royalty to the BBFC on every copy sold, up to an agreed maximum fee. This takes the risk of up-front costs away from the small firms, enables them to make masses of material reavailable without having to worry about selling large numbers, and still means that the BBFC gets its funding from the industry.

End result: We get much more choice in what we can watch, a major barrier is removed to enable small independent companies to thrive, and there is less need for the customer to source films from other territories, thus supporting the UK industry. Everybody wins, yes?

As usual, your thoughts and opinions on this are welcome. Meanwhile, if you are a UK reader, and you want to see British productions like Peter Cushing in 1965's The Skull, the bonkers biker-undead flick Psychomania from 1972, or the proto-Wicker Man of 1966's Eye Of The Devil... Well, you'll just have to find a sympathetic seller in the USA.

Oh, and get that DVD/Blu-Ray player modified...

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