Never underestimate playground power. Hollywood doesn't, and last week it was the turn of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) to bow before the wrath of the pre-teen comic-book generation and their long-suffering parents. After a summer of discontent at box offices and in schoolyards across the land, when the under-12s discovered they were banned from seeing the blockbuster movie Spider-Man, the BBFC revamped its "12" category.
In effect, it dropped it, downgrading it to a mere advisory (a condition of the new "12A" is that under-12s are accompanied by a responsible adult). But the Spider-Man furore merely added a sense of urgency to a long-planned change, which was the last act in recently retired BBFC president Andreas Whittam-Smith's liberal regime. The film body had been under pressure from both a society grown increasingly impatient with censorship, and from the mighty Hollywood film companies, which increasingly design and market their major "event movies" to the younger set. A BBFC pilot study in Norwich last year, confirmed by a national study completed this summer, showed a majority of British parents favoured the change.
Spider-Man may not have changed the way movies are released in Britain. But Hollywood has changed the manner in which it does business, creating a new kind of movie (of which Spider-Man is a state-of-the-art example). This breaks the old rules, turning film censorship into a scrambled omelette of classes and categories in constant need of readjustment on both sides of the Atlantic. The BBFC's now-discredited "12" category is only 13 years old: it was invented to deal with the first Batman film in 1989. The new "12A" advisory – one step up from the "PG" (Parental Guidance) for 11-year-olds and under – brings Britain (more or less) into line with America's PG-13, which itself dates from 1984 when the US Motion Picture Association split its own "PG" label into two divisions.
Major Hollywood studios make and distribute 15 to 20 films each year. But they rely for their profits on only one or two. In the 1970s, first with Jaws and then with George Lucas's Star Wars trilogy, Hollywood discovered the "event movie", blockbusters that could return hitherto undreamt-of amounts of money. Ever since, they've been chasing the holy grail of reproducing the perfect blockbuster, summer after summer.
In the 1980s the formula was action-adventure with stars such as Schwarzenegger and Stallone – minimal dialogue, nothing complex, lots of special effects. Such films played around the world, leaping language barriers. In the 1990s, Hollywood discovered the power of "pre-selling", making movies based on already familiar, popular material such as favourite US TV series or comic books. Then they made them again and again as so-called "franchises" such as Super-Man and Batman.
Steven Gaydos, executive editor of the showbusiness newspaper Variety, says: "It's caught fire in the past five years. Hollywood has become more scientific in the way it works. Executives don't want any risk, and pre-selling reduces the downside risk."
So sweeping is the trend that even "art film" directors have joined it – Ang Lee's next film is The Incredible Hulk, while Sam Mendes's new gangster drama, Road to Perdition, is based on a graphic novel.
For the beleaguered film censors, the problem with films based on comic books is – the comic books. Comics have always been controversial, with their mix of cartoon violence, vivid villains and perverse characters; always accused of glorifying the crime or drug use that their clean-cut superheroes exist to combat.
In the 1950s, the controversy was over horror comics such as Tales from the Crypt. And it spilled over into the movies then, too. As a pre-teen in the north of the England, I remember my Boys' Own paper campaigning against the certificate for Them! a film about giant mutant ants we were forbidden to see.
By the 1970s, underground "alternative" comics with adult themes were subverting America's squeaky-clean Comics Code. In 1978, Will Eisner wrote the first "graphic novel" – comic books for grown-ups with a dark sensibility. The most famous remains Frank Miller's Batman-type series The Dark Knight.
From Superman to Batman to Spider-Man, a comic hailed in its own day (the early 1960s) as innovative for having a superhero with flaws and neuroses, the evolution has been fast and furious. And so has the undertow among anxious parents and disapproving authorities. In this country, as the arguments over adult obscenity laws have faded away since the 1960s, concerns over what material children should be exposed to have, if anything, increased.
For Hollywood, the benefits of the new formula far outweigh the risks. Yet there are risks. Stuart Williams, marketing manager at Columbia Tristar, which produced Spider-Man, admits: "The original 12 rating made a big difference to us in terms of potential audience. I personally took calls from parents with kids of 10 or 11 who couldn't take them to see the film. We know cinemas turned a lot of people away." Spider-Man still took £27.5m at the UK box office and will now be re-released to capitalise on the ratings change this weekend.
Meanwhile, the love affair between Hollywood and comic books shows no sign of ending. Marvel Comics' man about Hollywood, Avi Arad, has eight major movie productions scheduled between now and 2004 – everything from Spider-Man 2 to Ghost Rider, X-Men 2 and Fantastic Four.
But there are signs the relationship may be about to settle down into a kind of all-American marriage. Marvel Comics' latest release is The Call of Duty, a post-11 September comic about three everyday New Yorkers, a police office, a firefighter and an emergency medical technician who fight terrorism. Superheroes spawned in the age of nuclear stand-off are giving way to the working-class heroes of the twin towers. Sounds like a U certificate blockbuster in the making to me.
There was a mixed reaction to the scrapping of the 12 certificate among parents and children at the Warner Village cinema at Horwich, Lancashire'It's a good thing, but we'd vet the films first'
Michelle Slater and her son Tarek, eight, were seeing Men in Black II. It has a PG certificate
Michelle: "Scrapping the 12 certificate is fantastic news. It's frustrating not being able to take him to films that I want to watch and which are suitable for him. He is sensible enough to go and watch them. There are some of his friends I wouldn't take to watch a 12 movie like Spider-Man because they would be either too frightened or too bored. Most parents will be sensible. These days we should be able to make our own decisions about what our children watch."
Tarek, proudly wearing his Mummy Returns T-shirt, though he hadn't seen the film, said: "I'm glad I'll be able to see more films. I wanted to see Spider-Man but wasn't old enough. None of my friends got to see it either, and we all wanted to. There wasn't anything I would have found frightening. I'm sure there are worse things on television."
June Beard and Niall, 11, were going to see Scooby-Doo, which has a PG certificate
June: "I prefer the 12 certificate to be there because it gives a clear guide to parents about whether a film is suitable. I do think though that the classification should be better. I've seen films where I've wondered just why they received the 12 certificate, but having some regulation is still better than nothing. I took my daughter to see Jurassic Park a few years ago when she was 10 or 11. She was frightened and wanted to leave."
Niall disagreed with his mother, saying: "I'm glad they got rid of it [the 12 certificate] and I can see more films. I went to see Spider-Man and enjoyed it. I would have been upset if they had not let me in. There was nothing that was frightening about it. I like going to the cinema, but I don't buy the T-shirts or anything. I just like the films."
Mick Jenkins, Amanda Browne, Charlotte, 12, and Rebecca, 8, were seeing Men in Black II
Amanda: "There are some 12 films that I would allow Rebecca to see, now I have that choice. We go to the cinema about twice a month and it's good the family can see more films together. I think we would vet the films ourselves first before letting the children see them. But it's nice to have the choice."
Charlotte: "It doesn't seem fair to scrap the 12 certificate just when I'm old enough to see them anyway, but I think it is a good thing. I saw Titanic, which was a 12 film, and I didn't think there was anything there for me not to see."
Interviews by Michael Prestage
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