The BBFC has given The Empire Strikes Back a PG certificate for the first time – but why the sudden change? Simon has been finding out.

Particularly in current times, re-releases of older movies have become ever more important to cinema chains. With the majority of studios postponing the release of their films, 2020 saw lots of unexpected spaces to be filled in the cinema release schedule (and it’s likely the same will happen when cinemas finally reopen this year). Lots of older titles – from Lawrence Of Arabia through to The Greatest Showman – found themselves back on general release in the UK.

Re-releases of older titles has been a growing business anyway, and in recent years Warner Bros for one has thrown its weight behind new cinema outings for the likes of Batman and The Lost Boys. Fox – in its pre-Disney days – re-released Alien a year or two back, whilst it’s hard to find an area of the country here you can’t catch a big screen showing of The Muppet Christmas Carol most Decembers.

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That’s classified

Of particular note, though, is how the BBFC certificates for films sometimes fluctuate when a film finds its way back into cinemas. There’s a reason for this too. The vast majority of older films getting fresh cinema prints are being prepared and supplied to movie houses on a DCP. It’s very much the exception that a cinema will take delivery of an older movie in 35mm format now, replete with the cans of film required to transport it. A DCP – digital cinema package – is basically a hard drive in a box (I’m simplifying heavily, but at its heart, that remains what it is). The drive plugs into the projection system most cinemas have, and it’s this format that’s made it more practical for chains around the country to show older movies.

Thing is though, if you package a film on a DCP, it has to be resubmitted for fresh classification, even if it’s previously been ratified by the British Board Of Film Classification (BBFC) on film. As a consequence, viewed through modern eyes and in a contemporary context, lots of films have had their ratings softened over the past few years. Movies such as Die Hard, Alien and Aliens were 18 certificate films when they were first released into UK cinemas. Now, their respective ratings stand at 15 apiece.

The BBFC doesn’t have a programme of going back to films and reclassifying them itself. It reclassifies films when they’re submitted to it for certification, else previous ratings are left to stand, irrespective of how classification guidelines have evolved.

The vast majority of times, then, the certificate that awarded comes back is either in line with the original rating, or slightly softer. Occasionally, a film goes the other way: Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves was a PG in cinemas (a cause of contention at the time, and a decision the then BBFC chief James Ferman would regard as his greatest error in the job), and now it’s a 12.

However, one more recent decision that raised eyebrows was the news that, after 40 years, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back had been elevated from a U certificate to a PG for the first time. It’s happened on the tenth time the film has been submitted for classification to the BBFC.

It’s all for U

To give a brief history of how we got this far, the film was first classified for its cinema release back in May 1980, when it was awarded its initial U. A video submission followed in 1986 and again in 1991 (the latter presumably for the widescreen VHS), and then the film’s Special Edition got a U when it landed in cinemas in 1997. That certificate was ratified too for the Special Edition’s video release the year after.

More George Lucas tinkering followed in 2004 for the film’s DVD releases, and again in 2011. Both times, the film was classified twice, with its commentary tracks also factored in. Since 2011, though, it’s stood as a U certificate until the film’s new owners – Disney – put it forward for a 40th anniversary release in June of 2020. And this time, the certificate changed.

The BBFC’s decision to give it a PG certificate after all this time was for “moderate violence, mild threat”. That’s an upgrade from 2011’s “Contains mild violence and threat”. What, then, has happened in nine years to elevate the level of violence in the BBFC’s eyes? Well, I asked the BBFC.

Revisions

It explained that “we first classified Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back on 7 March 1980, where it received a U classification. It was last seen for theatrical release in 1997, where the established U classification was upheld. The work has also been seen for home entertainment release, most recently in September 2011, where it was also classified U.”

“Since then we have revised our classification guidelines around issues such as violence, horror and threat. The Empire Strikes Back was recently resubmitted for a 40th anniversary theatrical re-release. Under our current guidelines, the established U is no longer appropriate as the violence and threat in certain scenes exceed what people tell us they expect at U.”

Obviously there are spoilers here, and the BBFC’s extended guidance on its webpage goes into them a bit further. But we’ll err on the side of caution in case there’s someone out there who still hasn’t caught the movie. It’s got a bit of a moment near the end, after all.

“To put this into context, at U violence will generally be very mild, while at PG violence will usually be mild,” the BBFC explained to me. “However, there may be moderate violence at PG if it is justified by context. In the case of The Empire Strikes Back, there are moments of moderate violence that display a brief emphasis on pain and injury, as well as sequences of mild threat. The established U was therefore no longer reasonable or defensible, so the film was reclassified PG.”

More recent Star Wars films have been uniformly awarded 12A certificates of course, but then the movies themselves have been on the harsher side. That said, Empire is hardly without its harsher moments too.

“When it comes to viewing films with existing classifications, we generally only view them again if the distributor chooses to resubmit them,” the BBFC confirmed. “However, there are certain cases where if a distributor intends to re-release a film they will be required to resubmit them. When previously classified content is resubmitted, we always apply our most recent guidelines”.

Solved

And that’s the bottom of the mystery in this case. The exact same film that was signed off as a U in 2011 – appreciating the tinkering George Lucas has done over the years – is one of the few movies to be regarded as deserving a tougher certificate than before, with not a frame of footage difference between the last submitted version and this.

Others – The Lord Of Rings: The Fellowship Of The Ring an obvious further example, given its jump from PG to 12 – have followed and a similar path. But otherwise, if anything, the trend is more relaxed ratings than tougher ones. Just don’t expect The Exorcist to become a PG anytime soon…

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