The BBFC is moving into a new realm of film classification, content tagging and client support for the screen industries, in the biggest technology transformation the organisation has seen. Michael Burns finds out how the whole project came together.

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Birds of Prey: Was the first cinema release to use BBFC’s new client portal

With a history of more than 100 years of classifying films, and more recently VOD, websites and music videos online, The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) recently changed its classification platform and client portal for all submissions, including a content tagging platform where film classification is carried out. The new platform is cloud-based, which not only brings flexibility, increases security and reduces risk, but also helps combat the climate emergency and supports social distancing measures. 

“Project Horizon is revolutionising the BBFC’s end-to-end supply chain: from order management to resource scheduling, compliance tagging and customer communications,” says Dave Barrett, deputy CEO of the BBFC. “We have worked with various studios and distributors across the industry to design a system for submissions that works for everyone. Our 100 years of classification expertise remains at the heart of what we do, but we are changing the tools we use. 

“As digital landscapes shift, UK parents need BBFC ratings more than ever so they can choose to view what’s right for them and their family,” continues Barrett. “When we embarked on this project, we were initially looking for replacement technology. But we soon realised that we needed a whole new way of working - one with flexibility at its heart to support our development of new classification methodologies and industry partnerships. This project has touched almost every area of the business, radically changing how we approach our regulatory role.  

Consultant firm Remodus worked closely with the BBFC on the transformation project, known as ‘Project Horizon’, and developed it with a group of technology partners including Amazon Web Services, Vidispine, Guidesmiths, NMR and 100 Shapes.  
“One of the reasons that the BBFC came to us was because of our experience in the media and broadcast space,” says Andrew Ioannou, director of Remodus. “The system which had been in use for many years and served that business quite well, was creaking at the seams for various different reasons. They hadn’t moved to utilise cloud or anything like software as a service. They recognised that they needed a rethink, but as we ‘lifted the rug’, we very quickly discovered that the size of the transformation they needed to make was actually so big, it became a company-wide transformation.” 

Root and branch 
A holistic technology strategy was worked out between Remodus and the organisation, which as well as the classification process also encompassed other internal departments, while communications and other systems were moved to G-Suite. 

Previously the BBFC compliance and submission processes were heavily manual, with hand-typed timecodes and descriptions, plus limits on collaboration.  

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Dave Barrett: Deputy CEO of the BBFC

“Our online submission portal was found to be confusing and inflexible,” says Barrett. “This was due in part to the integration of several bespoke elements with little or no cloud or API functionality to improve them.” 

“They needed to have an integrated supply chain that could preserve the metadata from end to end and provide a good customer experience from ordering to fulfilment, as well an efficient workflow in between those two points,” says Ioannou.  

“The key thing for us was that it all complied with the technology strategy as well,” adds Remodus director Emma Clifford. “So we were looking for it to be in the cloud. We were looking for it to include commercial off the shelf products as far as possible, and we were looking for configuration rather than bespoke development. 

“We were looking to make it as flexible as possible to be able to swap things in and out as business needs and requirements will change,” she adds. “The system at its core needs to be flexible enough to enable new services that the BBFC might offer. We also had to improve the user experience not just for the clients but for the compliance team.” 

She continues: “One of our recommendations was to restructure their operations and IT teams, merging two teams into one to promote self-service help for a lot of clients and the users of the platform, and manage things like SLAs and service agreements with SaaS providers.” 

Responsive thinking 
All of this change took place incrementally, using the agile development approach advocated by Remodus.  

“You’re always going to do a very, very gradual migration,” says Clifford. “Introducing and having some clients on the new system, some on the old or sometimes using both, and keeping the data in sync as well. The communication around it has to be really good for people to understand what system they’re working in.” 

“We started the project in 2018 and focused on releasing and supporting the core workflows initially with a roadmap of enhancements to ensure the system grows and evolves to meet the needs of the BBFC,” says Barrett. “Multiple clients have been onboarded, all of whom are submitting content and receiving their classifications through Horizon. As we gear up the project, we’re adding new features and are also in the process of moving our entire database of classified works into Horizon – so that searching and navigating our full archive of records and information is much easier, both for us and our clients.” 

”We’ve put control into the hands of our clients, who now play a bigger part in the classification process and are now responsible for their own account administration Clients will also be able to access the full archive of past classifications within the client portal.” - Dave Barrett, Deputy CEO of the BBFC

“The actual compliance interface that the team of compliance officers and managers use has been built with them,” says Clifford. “The whole team has been involved from the start.” 

“A key difference here, is that we’ve moved to a tagging-based system, rather than a time-consuming manual report writing approach,” says Barrett. “This combined with the integration of file uploads directly to the portal has streamlined the process for customers and improved the user experience.” 

While the new system was to be tagging-based, Clifford says it also needed to be able to add long form text. “You’ve got to have something that you can look at quickly, but also then review and add more if you need to,” she explains. “You’ve got to be able to use this on file-based content – where you can go backwards and forwards – but also on cinema releases, which you potentially only get to see once, potentially in somebody else’s cinema, and potentially where you don’t have access to the internet. What we were absolutely convinced about is you want a common interface that does all of that. 

“We’ve used 100 Shapes, who are fantastic UI UX designers, to design the front-end over a video player,” Clifford continues. “The user experience is bespoke. Andy and I had quite a bit of influence on the starting point of that, because both of us have edited, both of us have added data to timelines, and both of us understand timecode.” 

With the exception of the user interfaces, everything has been created using off the shelf tools and products. Also, with the exception of the user interfaces, there’s no code. 

“Everything is built using off the shelf modules, and it’s all built using microservices,” says Ioannou. “We’re using Google’s Material Design as the foundation for the way that the client-facing and the operational web user interfaces look. We’re using Amazon Web Services (AWS), and Amazon Workflow tools. You can plug things in and, and take things out, you can very quickly add new features and new bells and whistles.  

“The media asset management platform that we’ve used is an off the shelf product,” he continues. “This captures all the data from all interactions from all the compliance processes and creates a massive database. That in itself integrates with other databases; it integrates with IMDb, integrates with EIDR (Entertainment Identifier Registry) and integrates with movieXchange to pull in additional data.  

“It’s all glued together by an orchestration layer and integration layer developed by GuideSmiths,” adds Ioannou. “We gave the developers the objective and the technology strategy. We didn’t want bespoke code; it was up to them to recommend what they wanted to use, in terms of specific tools and widgets.” 

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Project Horizon: Allows clients to play a bigger part in the classification process

Cloud classification 
“Project Horizon has transformed the way we work at the BBFC,” says Barrett. “Switching to a cloud-based approach has given greater flexibility to vendors, and improved remote access so we can work more dynamically and reduce support costs. A timeline is provided within the platform so clients can see in real time as each task that contributes to them receiving their classification is completed. All the messaging between our compliance team and clients takes place directly within our platform, allowing our team to seamlessly send on any comments or provide additional information.  

“Project Horizon has reshaped how we deal with content,” continues Barrett. “But it’s important to say that everything submitted to the BBFC will still be seen by our highly trained team of Compliance Officers, it’s simply the tools that we use as a business which are changing.  

“Clients now make their submission and upload their content online via our new intuitive Client Portal. Using integrations with Google Calendar the viewings are scheduled, and Compliance Officers will then watch and classify the content within the protected platform. Once the rating and ratings info has been decided, the system then alerts the client who can choose to accept and download their classification. We’ve put control into the hands of our clients, who now play a bigger part in the classification process and are now responsible for their own account administration Clients will also be able to access the full archive of past classifications within the client portal.” 

Barrett adds that the BBFC is always looking for ways to reduce its carbon footprint and Horizon has helped. “This project has seen us move from outdated on-premise servers, to a cloud-based system,” he says. “This has meant that we’ve not only saved on office space, but also power used to run the technology by dispensing with our older inefficient architecture. Introducing better video conferencing facilities in G-suite has allowed us to cut back on international travel significantly.” 

Up and running 
The first cinema release to be submitted and classified using the BBFC’s new client portal and tagging platform is Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn). Unfortunately, as it has with so many things, the effect of the pandemic impacted the film world almost immediately after. 

“The BBFC is continuing to adapt its contingency plans in line with the developing situation around coronavirus COVID-19,” says Barrett. “We have activated our business continuity plans and are working to maintain business as usual to the best of our abilities. Horizon is playing a key part here, allowing us all to work remotely and securely from home. We’ve adapted both our theatrical and home entertainment policies so that we can continue to view content securely, while still providing a service to our clients, which means that families can get the trusted advice we know that they need and want. Horizon is also helping us keep connected, making it easier for us to hold meetings, work effectively and deliver both classifications and other projects.  

“We’ve already had excellent feedback from our clients around how intuitive and easy to use the new platform is,” he continues. “We have already seen many benefits, including improving our ability to work remotely, increased staff collaboration, effective internal communications and workspace utilisation. With offices around the world shutting their doors during the global pandemic and more staff moving to home-based working, our move to a cloud-based approach will continue to allow our clients to submit their content for classification without missing a beat.”