On January 10 bizarre new laws came into effect in South Australia pertaining to the manner in which R-rated films are displayed and promoted. The new laws, which are contained in the Classification (Publications, Films and Computer Games) (R 18+ Films) Amendment Act 2009, apply to any premises that rent or sell R-rated films — namely cinemas and DVD libraries/retailers.

The inane piece of legislation was initiated by Family First MP Dennis Hood, who campaigned to implement the new regulations after his two-year-old daughter picked up an adult DVD during a shopping trip. We can assume he wasn’t shopping for porn.

The laws consist of two components. The first stipulates that any premises that display material for R18+ films (other than adults-only shops) must do so in a different area from where material for other films are displayed — i.e. separate aisles, shelves, stands or tables. And a notice printed in type at least 1.5 centimetres in height must read:

R 18+ FILMS AREA — THE PUBLIC ARE WARNED THAT MATERIAL DISPLAYED IN THIS AREA MAY CAUSE OFFENCE.

Retailers face a maximum fine of $5000 if they’re busted not complying. Their only other option is to continue to mingle R-rated films with other titles on the condition that the R-rated DVD covers use Home Brand-style branding and then some — allowing for only the name of the film and the rating. Pictures, quotes from critics and even plot synopsises would not be permitted.

From a commercial perspective, such a condition is virtually untenable; it is difficult to imagine, for example, your local DVD rental library — which pays a great deal more for DVDs with rental licences than titles bought only for sale — displaying their new stock sans all publicity images.

This essentially means new release films such as Bruno and The Hangover (Extended Edition) will now be grouped alongside more, um, adult films such as Raiders of the Lost Arse, Good Will Humping, The Postman Only Rims Twice and a plethora of others titles that, if named here, would probably plonk the Crikey newsletter smack-bang in your junk email folder.

The other component of the new laws prohibits any business from exhibiting an R-rated film or parts of it (i.e. trailers) as well as any associated promotional material. In other words don’t expect to see any more posters for R-rated flicks in cinemas in South Australia. Again a maximum fine of $5000 can be applied for not complying.

The laws are designed to prevent minors from being exposed to unsuitable images. But even with the new laws this will prove impossible to achieve and, worse, it will usher in a ridiculously hypocritical initiative.

The cover of The Hangover, which depicts the inoffensive image of three men and a baby, will be subjected to the new laws, while a virtually endless list of films given milder ratings will be allowed to exhibit their far more provocative images. The cover of Saw (MA+) depicts a severed foot. The cover of Borderland (MA+) depicts, from behind, a topless woman dancing in front of a giant picture of an eerie looking mask.

The marketing images for older, milder scary movies are no less risqué: the cover of Prom Night — rated only M — depicts a petrified woman hanging upside down in the reflection of a butcher’s knife, with creepy eyes positioned either side of the blade. All of these images would be allowed while The Hangover’s would be banned, or moved to a different section.

Even the less media savvy consumers out there are likely to understand that films with higher classifications do not necessarily exhibit more provocative marketing materials. The Rann government, and every minister who voted for these new regulations, ought to be reminded that the logic behind that  adage “don’t judge a book by its cover” cuts both ways: you can’t judge a cover by its book. They would have better success achieving their loopy won’t-somebody-please-think-of-the-children initiative if they introduced a separate classification system for marketing images themselves, rather than assuming all R-rated pics have equivalent R-rated posters and PR stills, which is clearly not the case.

Even if we leap into Hood’s skin for a moment and try to see this from his point of view, the logic doesn’t make sense. Given most DVD shops group their titles by genre, his daughter most likely strayed into the adult movie section, which she would have access to irrespective of whether a small cautionary sign exists there or not. And I cannot recall a single premises I’ve been to that stocks DVDs —  Target, JB Hi-Fi, Blockbuster, Video Ezy, etc — that did not have a separate area for family/kids titles. Also, businesses are very much aware that placing a kids section right next to the porn isn’t in anybody’s best interests, so that is not a great concern either.

If parents are worried about their children being exposed to unsuitable images, they ought to walk hand-in-hand to the family section of their DVD shop and stay with them. That would make infinitely better parenting than conjuring bogus new laws destined to prove embarrassingly ineffectual.

Peter Fray

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