Masters of Cinema

James Oliver is a film critic and historian.

Is there a more pompous, self-aggrandising form of communication than the open letter? Especially these days, when every bedroom blogger puffs themselves up like some latter day Emile Zola by addressing their intemperate screeds Directly To Those In Power.

So, with that in mind, I need to explain why I’ve written an open letter.

It’s addressed to Maria Miller (you can read it at and concerns legislation brought in by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).

Remember the outcry a year or so back, about kids being exposed to saucy music videos by Lady Gaga and her ilk? Well, the DCMS has responded: they mean to expand the remit of the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC). At the moment, certain material (including documentary and music) is exempt from BBFC scrutiny, but if the DCMS have their way, all potentially risqué material, including that currently exempted, will have to be examined by our doughty classifiers.

You can find the full explanation of the changes here.

It is, then, tangible action to back up the rhetoric about tackling the sexualisation of childhood. The trouble is, it does rather more than that. The unintended consequences are going to play merry hell with a number of small businesses and may result in them shutting their doors.

Right now, the UK has some of the most exciting DVD labels in the world, independent imprints curated with love and catering to just about every taste. You like vintage British films? Then you’re well served by Odeon Entertainment. Eureka’s Masters of Cinema trade in the bona-fide world cinema classics (yer Fellinis, yer Fritz Langs), while Second Run specialise in rediscovering vital masterpieces that have fallen off the radar. If that all sounds a bit la-di-da, then check out Arrow, purveyors of good, honest shlock.

Margins are tight – that’s indie sector economics for you – but they’re run by canny operators and many have developed global followings. You don’t have to take my word for it – just ask the Prime Minister. Those box-sets of Scandinavian crime-dramas he’s so fond of are released by Arrow.

But if the BBFC remit changes, these labels are going to take a hard hit.

One of the reasons that these companies have such a devoted followings is because they go the extra mile with their special features, those interviews, documentaries and featurettes that give viewers ever more value for their hard-earned. Labels can include all these special features because, as it stands, the BBFC class ‘em as ‘documentary’ and can waive them through.

When the rules change, though, anything (be it documentary or whatever) unsuitable for children under 12 – even if destined for a disc children shouldn’t be watching anyway – will have to be submitted to the BBFC. Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that the BBFC charge for their services, and charge mightily at that.

Extra charges mean nothing to the major labels, backed as they are by humungous conglomerates. But for the knife-edge budgets of independent labels, they’re potentially crippling. Inevitably, labels will scale back on the bonus features and British DVD releases will become ever-more vanilla.

Long term, this means labels will close. You see, those extra features aren’t just amusements for anoraks: they’re vital incentives for people to buy those releases. Don’t forget that piracy is costing all labels dear, major and independent alike. Why buy stuff legally when you can just download it from some dodgy torrent site? Well, if it’s bundled with a generous set of extras, the legal option becomes far more attractive.

What’s most galling is that the DCMS legislation won’t do what it’s supposed to. There’s some scratching of heads among the indie labels that the Government have chosen to tackle physical media in an age of YouTube, charging an already anachronistic body (the BBFC) with protecting a generation who live online.

And it leads us to this bizarre place: a Government that vowed to cut regulation to help small businesses is now imperilling small businesses by increasing legislation, which won’t even do what it’s meant to do.

Those of us who love our indie labels are hoping that the Government will think again. Far more eloquent than my open letter are the 2000 signatures (and counting) to a petition asking Miller to reconsider these changes.

I can only hope she will; I don’t know if she’s a film buff, but if she takes a look at discs these labels put out (and I’m very happy to offer recommendations) she’ll see what wonderful work they do and what a tragedy it would be to lose them. And if it helps to persuade her to change her mind, I promise not to write any more bloody open letters if she does.