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Film Boards & Rating Criteria

Germaine de Haan

This outline supplies a brief general overview of current classification systems, rating criteria, considerations and concerns within the various Film Classification Boards in Europe.


Most Classification systems are bound by Legal Acts imposed on them by the Government. They can, however, function independently. In some cases the Law even distinguishes the various areas of media classification such as feature films, trailers, teasers, shorts, commercials, videos, DVDs, videogames and sometimes even the internet. In almost all countries the outcome of the classifications is binding, though in some countries they are only considered as advice on a provincial level. The legal implications are carried out by either the police, the cinema, the classification board, the court or the film distributor. In about half the European countries a distributor is forced to offer his product to the Board. In other countries this is voluntary, though this usually has binding implications for the rating. In about half of the European countries it is possible for a distributor to contest the outcome of a classification by appealing either to the film board, the court or an independent complaints commission. Apart from two or three countries, all classification boards give consumer advice.


Most European Film Boards are funded by the Government, the film industry and/or sponsors. The yearly budgets range from 53.160 to 880.260 Euro. The number of classified media products ranges from about 210 to 7000 a year. The number of staff ranges from 1 to 40. Apart from a director these can include examiners, film advisors or media specialists, projectionists, bookkeepers and secretaries. Some of them are civil servants. In some countries the examiners are employed full-time. They usually have a background in psychology, law, social science, youth protection, teaching, children's organisations, religion, the government or the film industry. In other countries the examiners are a cross-section of society. The examiners usually follow continuous training courses through discussions, seminars, exchange programs, lectures and literature. The topics mainly focus on classification and criteria in general, new media products, free speech, and the development of minors. In most European countries the outcome of the classifications is made public through the press and is advertised in newspapers, at the cinemas, on the products, on publication material and on the internet. About half of the European classification systems consider the products to be artistic expressions. The other half does not, or does not find this relevant. The protection of minors is a responsibility of either the government and/or the parents/educators, and about half the European examiners consider themselves to be advisors rather than censors or classifiers.

Traditional criteria

The following is a collection of traditional criteria in different wordings in random order from various European systems. Although some criteria may seem similar there are interesting differences, which often result in a crucial distinction between two specific rating levels.


Although there are regional differences (Northern vs. Southern Europe) the largest area of concern for the film boards at this moment is violence.

  • mild threat
  • mild violence
  • emphasis on realistic weapons
  • stronger violence justified by setting (historic, comedy, fantasy)
  • glamorisation of weapons and knives
  • fighting
  • realistic violence
  • violent techniques (combat, hanging, suicides)
  • emphasis on injuries or blood
  • sex violence
  • sexual violence with(out) physical detail
  • strong and realistic violence
  • details of infliction of pain and/or injuries
  • promotion of illegal weapons
  • brutal violence
  • extreme violence
  • portrayal of violence as a normal solution to problem
  • heroes who inflict pain and injury
  • callousness towards victims
  • teaching violent techniques
  • mutilation, torture for sadistic purposes
  • rape, torture, sadistic violence, terrorisation
  • horrific violence
  • brutalising violence
  • sadistic violence
  • inflictions of real or simulated pain


  • occasional natural nudity with no sexual context
  • occasional nudity in brief and discreet sexual context
  • full nudity
  • occasional nudity
  • brief and discreet nudity in sexual context


  • mild sexual reference only (kissing and references to 'making love')
  • sex implied, though discreet and infrequent
  • sexual activity implied, without detail
  • simulated sexual activity portrayed without genital images
  • sexual scenes based on responsible relationships
  • (brief) implication of casual sex
  • aggressive sexual behaviour
  • explicit images of aroused genitalia, penetration, masturbation, semen, oral-genital contact or close-up of the anal area
  • graphic portrayal of sexual activity accompanied by coercion or violence, or threatening or humiliating language or behaviour
  • pornography
  • sexual assault
  • sex accompanied by pain, injury or humiliation
  • explicit images of penetration (oral, vaginal or anal) and masturbation
  • ejaculation, defecation, urination, bestiality
  • close-up of genital or anal detail
  • erections
  • manipulation of genitalia stopping short of masturbation
  • semen (but not on faces)
  • mild, non-violent fetish activity
  • group sexual activity
  • bestiality
  • necrophilia
  • urinary or excretory functions

Sex education

  • sex material that genuinely seeks to inform and educate in matters such as human sexuality, safe sex and health
  • sex-education and scenes of outstanding artistic merit


  • infrequent use of very mild swearwords
  • very mild and mild bad language only
  • moderate swearwords may be used
  • frequent use of strong language
  • coarse language


  • mild and brief horror effects
  • scary sequences
  • sustained threat and menace
  • (occasional) gore
  • strong psychological horror
  • shocking effects
  • sudden scary moments

Use of drugs and alcohol

  • no reference to drugs or drug use
  • discreet verbal or visual references to drugs
  • condoning or encouraging drug use
  • brief and occasional references to, and images of, drug-taking
  • drug-taking with clear and instructive detail
  • encouragement to use or misuse alcohol/drugs
  • condoning or encouraging drug use
  • verbal or visual references to drugs

Areas of concern

Emotional Issues

The following issues could lead to (potential) distress, fear and/or confusion in the life of a young child. It may in some cases even be potentially harmful to their psychological, emotional, intellectual and cognitive development.

  • death/dying
  • pain and suffering
  • punishment
  • bullying
  • humiliation and sadism
  • manipulation of power
  • politics
  • religion and beliefs
  • right and wrong
  • hatred and racism
  • human relationships
  • sex and sex education
  • fact and fiction
  • (separation and abandonment)

Moral issues

This is a broad but interesting set of topics ranging from public indecency to criminal behaviour. They include issues that are of considerable concern to parents.

  • indecent behaviour
  • public indecency (urinating, vandalism, mooning, streaking)
  • leading to disorder
  • grossly indecent performance thereby outraging the standards of public decency
  • anti-social influence on behaviour
  • illegal/criminal behaviour
  • encouraging or inciting crime
  • fraud, blackmail
  • breaking into cars, lock-picking
  • bad behaviour directed to the public
  • stirring up hatred against any section of the public on grounds of colour, race or ethic or national origins, or sexual orientation or sex
  • encouraging aggressive attitudes
  • taking pleasure in pain
  • promoting anti-social behaviour
  • incitement of racial violence

Thematic issues

  • misinterpretation of a specific theme leading to confusion
  • sensitive and appropriate treatment of a problematic theme for young audience
  • serious thematic issues such as crime, domestic violence and racism
  • adult themes suitable for young teenagers
  • all themes permitted, permitted the treatment is appropriate for 15 year olds
  • all themes permitted, treatment alone determines acceptability

Identification and imitation

This has over the last few years become a very important issue as more and more academic research has been done on the impact of media on children.

  • risk of over-identification and imitation behaviour
  • imitation behaviour
  • the representation of heroes (as young children idolise them)
  • the treatment of animals (as children are very sensitive to what happens to them)


The following is a collection of concerns which are usually not included in one of the standard criteria, but which are considered separate and important rating criteria.

  • harmful to psychological and emotional development
  • harmful to physical health
  • harmful to intellectual and cognitive development
  • harmful to social and moral development
  • morally bad behaviour
  • promoting sexual humiliation or degradation of or violence towards women
  • cruelty to animals
  • intimidation
  • discrimination
  • political extremism/propaganda
  • indecent representations of children
  • incomprehensible theme
  • heavy psychological drama
  • tension field without possibility of escape
  • bad ending/open ending
  • sadism
  • fascism
  • racism
  • sexism
  • discrimination
  • forms of humiliation or denigration
  • political extremism
  • treatment of problematic themes
  • suffering
  • physical restraint which prevents from withdrawing consent
  • threats or humiliation


For all these criteria there is always an exception possible when justified in the public interest or where there are considerations of context, for instance in some countries Saving Private Ryan had a lower rating because they considered it to be factual/historical although it was extremely violent. On the other hand, countries will consider science-fiction violence to be rated lower because of its non-factual content (Starship Troopers) or because of its literary background (Romeo and Juliet).

Positive criteria

In the discussion of examiners some positive effects can determine the outcome of a rating, often to a lower rating.

  • balance between violence and the amount of right and justice
  • reassuring outcome
  • comic relief
  • sensitive approach

Genre, content, style and theme

Within and between the various boards there have always been discussions on categorisation. This is mostly reflected in the different distinctions between genres, content, styles and themes. The following is a sample collection example of terms which could belong to various categories (Drama, Tragedy, Comedy, Action/adventure, Science-fiction, Children/family, Non-fiction, Sex, Horror, Adventure, Western, War, Disasters, Martial arts, Alien, Musical, Cartoon/animation, Fairy tale/fable, Music, Documentary, Erotica, Porn, Cult, Romantic, Realistic, Historical, Direct, Satire, Thriller/crime).

Target groups

In some European systems the classification form will furthermore ask what, according to the examiner, is the target group of the product (i.e. Family, Children, Youngsters, Adults). Although it is not essential for the actual rating, it is a helpful device when comparing it to the proposed target group of the distributor.


The wordings used to convey the outcome vary in the different countries. It is an important aspect as it gives the public a positive or negative advice.

  • suitable/unsuitable
  • harmful/not harmful
  • approved/not approved
  • allowed/not allowed

GdH (29/06/00)

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