How are film age ratings decided?

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: April 27, 2022 (Last updated: December 14, 2023)
cinema signage

In the UK, film age ratings are given for every release being shown in a cinema or going on DVD, and although not bound by the same rules, most streaming services also follow the same ratings system. These ratings are given for a variety of reasons, from drug use depicted in the movie, levels of gore and horror shown and whether explicit language is used. The US also has a rating system for films with slightly slightly different rules, all of which we’ll touch on in this guide

Age ratings define a film more than many viewers realise, with older age ratings not only preventing younger viewers from watching in the cinema, but also affecting how they are shown on streaming services, with parental controls and profiles for children being commonplace on the likes of Netflix and other streaming services.

Age ratings can also define films in terms of popularity and while technically a lower age rating might mean more people are legally allowed to watch a film, having an older rating in genres such as horror might make the film more popular, as people looking for something particularly gory or action-packed are likely to be put off by a younger age rating.

Who decides?

Movie ratings come from The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in the UK. They are who decide on what age a film should be rated, and with every film shown in a UK cinema needing a film rating by law, they have their work cut out for them! 

The BBFC was founded in 1912 by the film industry, who wanted to censor themselves rather than having a government body doing it for them and although their role has changed over the years, their main responsibility since 1984 has been making sure every film has an appropriate age rating.

What do they look for? 

Compliance Officers in the BBFC consider a variety of issues when assessing a film, including dangerous behaviour, drugs, horror, discrimination, nudity, sex, violence and bad language. How severe or frequently these themes appear throughout the movie will also have an effect on how the film is eventually rated. Compliance Officers will also look at context and tone, including how it makes the audience feel. One surprising way in which a film’s rating is decided is the format it will be released on, as formats such as DVD will have a higher risk of under-age viewing.

Rating system used

The British Board of Film Classification uses a ratings system which will be very familiar to anyone in the UK and broadly uses a person’s age as the indicator of whether or not a film will be appropriate. The BBFC generally use the below ratings for most films: 

U – Suitable for all

PG – Parental guidance

12A – Cinema release suitable for 12 years and over

12 – Video release suitable for 12 years and over

15 – Suitable for only 15 years and over

18 – Suitable only for adults

How this compares to the US

In the UK, all films shown in cinemas need an age rating by law, whereas in the US a voluntary ratings scheme is used that is not legally enforced. The Motion Picture Association film rating system (MPA) is what is used in the United States to assess a film’s suitability for audiences based on its content.

The US ratings system differs from the UK as the MPA deems certain depictions such as drug use as completely restricted, no matter how briefly they are shown, and these films will require at least a PG-13 rating. The BBFC does not have specific rules in this regard and assesses films on a case by case basis. Despite these differences, both the MPA and BBFC give the same or similar ratings to most films.

The future of age ratings

Despite having been the subject of contention in the past, film age ratings are here to stay and are widely accepted and mostly approved of in the UK. With streaming giants such as Netflix agreeing to follow BBFC’s guidelines with their content, age ratings given by the British Board of Film Classification are something we should expect to see for a long time.

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