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Research behind the big screen

The next time you visit the cinema, says Sue Clark, think of the work that goes into regulating the industry

Every time you go to the cinema or pick up a DVD, you are affected by the work of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). We've been around for nearly a century, classifying cinema films and, since the introduction of the Video Recordings Act in 1984, videos (now DVDs) and some video games. The BBFC is independent of the Government and industry, making us unique in media regulation. We charge a fee based on the length of the work and last year classified over 17,000 of them.

Basis for decisions

How do we decide what you can and cannot see and which category should be awarded? Since some six years ago our decisions have been based on a set of published guidelines which themselves are the result of extensive consultation with the public, and research findings.

I am the Head of Communications at the BBFC and thus responsible for commissioning research. I joined the Board in 1999, with no experience of handling research projects. I was, however, very fortunate to work with those responsible for commissioning research for the Independent Television Commission, the Broadcasting Standards Commission and other media organisations and they introduced me, through a number of jointly-funded projects, to the world of research and a wide range of research companies.

Quantitative research underpins the guidelines and allows us to say "over 11,000 people contributed to the formulation of our current guidelines". Qualitative research, meanwhile, provides us with more in-depth information about people's attitudes to what we do.

Focus on drugs and violence

We used focus groups run by Goldstone Perl to look in depth at issues including violence, drugs and bad language. These also gave us valuable information about how well the '12A' cinema category (introduced in 2002 and allowing parents to decide whether to take under-12s to see the film) was "settling in".

This research highlighted the need to look at the consumer advice that the BBFC provides for each film. You may have seen it on cinema advertising and the back of DVD covers telling you about the film's content. The same company then ran a series of focus groups across the UK, where adults from all age groups and socio-economic backgrounds attended two sessions.

In the first of these focus groups they discussed a wide range of actual examples of consumer advice and the language used. The groups then took away three films - different ones for each group - and tried to come up with their own consumer advice to attempt a range of language that people would understand.

We were told that we should keep it simple and words like peril, anguish, innuendo, grisly, and imitable (a BBFC favourite) meant little to a significant part of the population. As a result of this research we have changed the guidance used when writing consumer advice.

Because the BBFC is the body legally responsible for classifying DVDs there has to be a legal procedure which allows distributors to appeal our decisions. In two separate appeals we commissioned research to support our decisions. In the first case the subject was sexual violence and the research involved recruiting people who visited video rental stores in the Midlands. The work was carried out by Dr Guy Cumberbatch and around 250 people were asked to fill in a questionnaire about their attitudes to the BBFC and classification. From these initial questionnaires a small group of people were asked to view a selection of films which involved sexual violence, including the film which was the subject of the appeal.

Line between soft and hard porn

In the second case Dr Cumberbatch carried out a similar exercise looking at the line between soft and hard core pornography. The results of this exercise were used as evidence in an appeal by a number of hard core pornography distributors. In both cases the BBFC won the appeal and the research results were an important factor in the outcome.

The BBFC has just commissioned two very different research projects to be carried out this year. The first, by the University of Aberystwyth, is looking at five films which deal with sexual violence and asking what kinds of enjoyment audiences gain from this genre. Do those who loathe them, or love them, see the same things in them? How does the context in which sexual violence is presented within the film affect the ways audiences understand it? How are responses governed by where and when people see such a film?

The second project, to be carried out by Cragg Ross Dawson, will set out to look at computer games and ask who plays them and what enjoyment they get from doing so. We hope that this will give us an insight into what motivates games players in contrast to the mainly American research which measures behavioural changes.

Importance of research

Research plays an important part in our decision-making process and the evidence it supplies allows us to answer questions about and criticisms of the classification process in general and specific film classification decisions. Being able to say that we have carried out research and that we are in touch with public attitudes is vital for our credibility as a regulator in the 21st Century.

 

Sue Clark
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2006