French rating boards are galled

'Saw III,' 'Prison Break,' 'Weeds' receive scrutiny

Marijuana, jail-based violence and torture all have been given the big "Non!" in France by film and television supervisory bodies.

Moves that include the Culture Minister's recent decision to ban people younger than 18 from seeing the U.S. horror hit "Saw III" have put media censorship at the forefront of public debate here.

The 18 rating for "Saw III," most recently applied to Michael Winterbottom's British import "9 Songs" in 2005, is used only in exceptional cases judged to be too extreme for the more ubiquitous 16 rating.

The movie's French distributor, Metropolitan, said it feared the move might be the precursor to similar decisions in the future. "This is the first time that a measure of such gravity has been taken against a genre film. We hope that this decision will not strongly limit the possibility of distributing genre films in France, whether they are foreign or French," the company said.

On top of the "Saw III" decision, the Conseil Superieur de l'Audiovisuel, an independent administrative authority created in 1989 to guarantee broadcasting freedom in France, publicly disagreed with broadcasters' ratings for two American TV programs, Fox's "Prison Break" and Showtime's "Weeds."

Whereas films are classified by the government, Gallic broadcasters have the freedom to label their own programs and overstep the opinion of the CSA if they so choose. The CSA last month addressed a letter to terrestrial channel M6, asking that the channel change its 10 rating for violent series "Prison Break" to a 12 rating, a classification shift that would relegate the show to a slot after 10 p.m.

M6 screened the final episode of the season in its usual primetime slot despite the opinion of the CSA and said it stood by its decision. "Our argument is that the show is broadcast in primetime everywhere. It's a series that communicates a positive message, namely fighting against the death penalty, and doesn't feature any gratuitous violence," a spokesperson for M6 said.

The CSA also addressed a letter to Canal Plus, asking that the channel change its 10 rating for "Weeds" to a 12 rating because "this classification does not correspond to a program that treats as commonplace the consumption of cannabis."

U.S. sellers appeared to be taking it in stride. "Throughout the history of television, we've had to meet local standards and practices. This is not groundbreaking," one studio executive said.

On the question of film censorship, the commission for film classification president Sylvie Hubac said, "Maybe it's the content that is becoming more violent rather than France becoming more strict." All films intended for theatrical release in France have to be granted a visa by the Ministry of Culture, upon the recommendation of commission for film classification.

Certainly, "Saw III," released Nov. 22 in France, is the first film to be banned there for those younger than 18 under a ruling not justified by explicit sexual scenes. Additionally, it has been given a higher rating than the 16 rating previously given to the first two installments in the trilogy. Culture Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres cited "the violence and incessant and unbearable sadism of scenes explicitly linked to physical and moral torture" to justify his decision, made upon recommendation by the Commission for Film Classification.

Hubac added that "Saw III" was barred because of a "pleasure in persecution and violent torture that just went too far."

"Saw III" production company Lionsgate doesn't seem to be too worried about the ruling. "An 18 rating in France has been known to affect boxoffice business. However, our French partner Metropolitan has achieved excellent results with the third film in the franchise."

"Saw III" opened in France 48% stronger than "Saw II" and about three times stronger than the first installment," Lionsgate International president Stephanie Denton said.

Although the censorship debate centers on just three specific projects to date, the industry at large is looking closely at how some upcoming decisions, including ratings for "Hostel 2" and "The Hills Have Eyes 2," will come down.

"We're not here to start any movements, we're here to view film after film. We don't have an agenda, we'll look at each film individually, then we'll see," Hubac added.
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