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Previously, any film to be sold or exhibited in Ontario had to be classified or approved by the OFRB, a division within the OFA.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

In what Ontario is citing as an effort to reduce the “unnecessary” financial burden on the film industry, the province’s Ministry of Government and Consumer Services is shutting down the Ontario Film Authority, effective Oct. 1.

The OFA, a self-funded arm’s-length agency created by the previous Liberal government in 2015 in a restructuring of the Ontario Film Review Board (OFRB), was responsible for licensing film distributors, retailers and exhibitors. It also oversaw the OFRB, which rated any film distributed or screened in the province according to the classifications of G, PG, 14A, 18A and R, as well as adult sex films.

In the short term, Ontario’s regulation of the province’s Film Classification Act will be amended to accept classifications from Consumer Protection BC, which has administered British Columbia’s Motion Picture Act since 2007. Adult sex films will require an approval from any Canadian jurisdiction that reviews and approves such films.

According to Queen’s Park, longer-term changes to “modernize” Ontario’s film-classification system will be proposed in the spring of 2020, with the consumer ministry looking to the public and the industry "to consult on ways to better reflect today’s market.”

Previously, any film sold or exhibited in Ontario had to be classified or approved by the OFRB, a division within the OFA. From April 1, 2017, through March 31, 2018 (the most recent data available), the OFRB classified 3,271 movies, screening a total of 288,866 minutes of film.

The OFA was self-funded, relying on two revenue streams to support its operations: film-licensing fees, in which businesses distributing or exhibiting a film in Ontario were required to apply for one of seven classes of licences, and film-classification fees, in which distributors paid the OFA to classify its films in order for the works to become available to provincial audiences.

The cost to classify non-Canadian English-language films was $4.20 a minute, resulting in about $500 for a two-hour film; foreign-language films are charged a flat fee of just under $80.

Yet in recent years, the OFA has seen dwindling submissions for classification. In 2018, film-classification revenue was $1.29-million, compared with $1.9-million the year before.

“Recently, the OFA provided the ministry with critical financial information related to its fiscal pressures, due to a rapidly changing film market,“ said a statement from the office of Lisa Thompson, Minister of Government and Consumer Services. “The major shift to digital platforms and streaming services has significantly changed viewers’ behaviour and impacted the OFA’s business and revenues, making it unsustainable.”

The ministry estimates that the move will save the film industry “a minimum of $1.5-million to $2-million” a year in film-classification and licensing costs. Companies and theatres that distribute and exhibit films must still display film-classification and rating information.

B.C. already provides ratings for other provinces. It signed an agreement in 2018 to provide film-classification services for Manitoba, a service it also has provided to Saskatchewan since 2007.

Yet some industry experts say the elimination of the OFA carries potential problems.

“It’s always a warning sign when government takes direct control of censorship and film classification. The relationship between censorship and ratings has always been contentious, and so I can only speculate as to why the ministry would take direct control of it,” said Paul Moore, an associate professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, who specializes in the history of cinema-going in Ontario. “To move from an arm’s-length authority to a branch of the ministry is a regressive move back to a more-historical and potentially more-conservative model.”

Eric Veillette, programming director at Toronto's Revue Cinema, added that although the OFRB has been hands-off in recent decades in terms of classification or censorship battles, he is skeptical of how Doug Ford's Progressive Conservative government might handle the shift.

“It’s definitely a wait-and-see kind of thing. We certainly haven’t seen any overhauls of agencies or ministries under the current government that leads me to think that this will be a good thing,“ Veillette said. “If it ends up saving distributors money, that’s absolutely fantastic. But I worry how this could affect things from an ideological standpoint.”

A spokesperson for Cineplex, the owner of Canada’s largest chain of movie theatres with a market dominance in Ontario, told The Globe and Mail that the company will “continue to provide our guests with film ratings as legislated by provincial guidelines as well as uphold age restrictions that follow from those ratings, not just in our 68 theatres in Ontario, but across our network of 165 across Canada.”

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