Alberta Film Ratings clarified
Alberta film classifications consist of two components: The age-based category and any attached advisories.
The five age-based categories are:
Film is suitable for viewing by all ages.
Parental Guidance (PG)
Theme or content of film may not be suitable for all children.
Audience members under 14 must be accompanied by an adult. Film may contain violence, coarse language, and/or sexually suggestive scenes.
Audience members under 18 must be accompanied by an adult. Film may contain explicit violence, frequent coarse language, sexual activity and/or horror.
Audience members must be at least 18. Film content not suitable for minors as it contains frequent sexual activity, brutal/graphic violence, intense horror and/or other disturbing content.
To stay abreast of Alberta's film ratings system - including ratings for new and upcoming films - visit www.albertafilmratings.ca, subscribe to the Alberta Film Ratings Newswire, or follow @abfilmratings on Twitter.
Somewhere in south Edmonton, there is a small non-descript government office tucked away at the back of a minor shopping complex. There isn't much to advertise what business occupies this space but what goes on inside affects the vast majority of the province's population, whether they know it or not.
At Alberta Film Classification, a team of three dedicated people spends its days watching movies. Each team member watches every second of every movie – including the credits – that gets a theatrical release in the province, more than 400 of them in 2011 alone.
But that's as far as they go. There's no editing room, no black tape and no trash can for movies that don't meet community standards. There is only a series of labels that get tagged on the films to offer guidelines to those who enjoy nights at the local movie theatre.
"We don't cut or ban films. We provide information for the movie-going public so that they can make informed viewing choices when they're taking their families out to see a film in public," explained Paul Pearson, the director of arts services and the manager of the team of three classification officers.
The importance of this service is a level of protection against things that happen in the public sphere that people have little or no control over. Pearson said that watching a movie in the theatre is fundamentally different than doing so at home because of that level of control.
"If you're watching a film at home … the lights are on or can be on, you can stop the film if you're scared, if your child is having questions, you can stop it or pause it and talk about it."
"If you really hate it and it really was not what you were expecting, you can just stop and not watch it. It's much more difficult to do that in a public space; in the theatre. What we do for Albertans is give them the information they need to make informed viewing choices."
In Canada, every province gets to decide its own rules for how films get rated. Some provinces have political appointees while others have consumer protection agencies that play the same role.
Up until 1996, this province had the Alberta Film Censor Board to rule things. That board was guided by the Amusements Act of 1912. Pearson said that not much has changed over all these years, even with the introduction of the Film and Video Classification Act in 2009. It provides the framework for how films are classified and regulated, but no longer edited or banned.
There are three classification officers who watch every movie and identify the potentially objectionable content with a series of 17 advisories. As Pearson puts it, they are "paid to not look away."
Together, they discuss that content and come up with the ratings.
They are every Albertan's first line of information and defence. They witness everything – the good, the bad and the horrible – that can be created in modern cinema so that regular citizens can know what they would be getting into beforehand.
"I think our system is the best system," Pearson says. "Call me biased but it is transparent, the distributors and moviegoers know what we're doing and how we're doing it, and we're consistent so you can trust our ratings. In Alberta, it's much more of a collaborative working philosophy with industry, distributors on one side, exhibitors on the other."
The aisle seat
"The one thing they need is stamina," Pearson admitted, "the ability to watch hundreds of films a year and not get snowed under emotionally or intellectually, to do that and not be adversely affected."
It's not as easy a job as one might think. Just ask Jill Shillabeer.
The film classification officer is quick to laugh and has an easy smile. She obviously retains a healthy sense of humour even though she doesn't much care for the gory, violent and frightening movies that so often come through her office; the screening room.
Her job is to be impartial, even if she loves or hates what is on screen.
"It's balancing viewing the film while scientifically decoding it."
She said that while movies provide that easy escapism that make them such a large part of the entertainment world, she and her cohorts have to be ever mindful because of the psychological impact of the medium and its messages.
"Self-care is a big part of what we do here. People have reactions. Movies can affect you emotionally. You're constantly living in a world of fantasy," she said. "You have to check into reality."
Reality checks are the responsibility of adults and parents, but everyone can go to the website of Alberta Film Ratings and see whether the latest superhero blockbuster is appropriate for them and their children. The site, www.albertafilmratings.ca, also has a searchable database to find ratings of past movies going back to 1930.
Alberta Film Classification only rates movies getting theatrical release, not those that run in conjunction with non-profit groups such as film festivals. It also doesn't touch home videos or video games. Those are the responsibilities of the Canadian Motion Picture Distributors Association and the Entertainment Software Ratings Board respectively.
Pearson said that Albertans watch more movies per capita than any other Canadians. Albertans' thirst for knowledge about movies has been demonstrated by steadily growing hits to its website (250,000 per year), and an increasing number of followers to its Twitter feed (#abfilmratings).
These public and readily accessible resources can still be ignored, right up until the ticket counter at the theatre.
Amy Woloszyn, the manager at Grandin Theatres, said there are some glitches in the system. She cited how some parents show up to buy tickets for their children to attend more mature movies, but then don't actually attend the screening with them. The theatre even has a second check to make sure that no one has snuck in from a different screening.
"If it's an 18A film, if they look under 18 we definitely are IDing everybody. If they don't have ID, they tend to try and sneak in so we have the usher looking out for them as well. We do frequent theatre checks."
The underlying problem as she sees it is that these 18A movies are targeted towards younger audience members. There are very few R rated movies that get released, mostly for the reason that it limits the number of people who are actually able to buy tickets.
So far this year there have only been two movies that received an R rating, meaning all audience members must be at least 18 years old. One of these was a horror movie and the other was an obscure cult movie about a Christ-like figure who has many strange and grotesque experiences replete with religious and sacrilegious imagery.
Battleground of the mind
To put it into perspective, the last film to be barred from screenings in Alberta was Silent Night, Deadly Night, a slasher-horror movie about a serial killer dressed as Santa Claus. Only 13 people met their demise in that film.
That was 25 years ago.
In 2003's Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, there were 836 screen deaths according to www.moviebodycounts.com, the highest number on that website's charts. That movie, still very popular with family audiences, received only a 14A rating in this province mostly because the deaths showed little blood or suffering.
The recent release The Avengers reportedly also had a very high body count, including war violence, cartoon violence and gang violence, but with a PG rating it managed to move on to already amass more than $1.5 billion internationally.
In 2004, the first instalment in the Saw franchise required movie patrons to show their driver's licences to prove that they were old enough to bear witness to the graphic scenes therein. There have been numerous new titles in the 'torture porn' horror sub-genre since then.
Coming soon to a theatre near you
Pearson said that knowledge is power and Alberta Film Classification intends on ramping up its campaign to educate audiences. Starting in the fall, a public service announcement will play before every screening of every movie in the province.
"We are always trying to increase that awareness."