Indie film mogul Harvey Weinstein, who steered silent French film The Artist to a Best Picture Oscar against the odds, is waging another crusade: Ensuring that a documentary about the epidemic of adolescent bullying can reach its teenaged target audience. (View trailer below.) The problem? Thanks to the film's six instances of the F-word, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) gave Bully an R rating. As a result, middle- and high-schoolers can't see it without a parent or guardian, and schools are far less likely to screen the film in class. Here, a guide to the controversy over Bully and the MPAA's "baffling, often myopic" ratings:
What exactly happened?
After the MPAA handed down the R rating, Weinstein appealed to the organization's Classification and Rating Appeals Board. On Feb. 23, the board rejected the appeal. (A majority backed Weinstein, but the yeas were one vote short of the two-thirds supermajority need to overturn the R rating.) The well-oiled Weinstein publicity machine quickly kicked into gear, and on Feb. 26, a Michigan high schooler named Katy Butler started an online petition urging the MPAA to give Bully a PG-13 rating. She flew to California this week to personally deliver boxes of more than 200,000 signatures to the MPAA. As of Friday, more than 260,000 people had signed the petition online.
What happens now?
Weinstein basically has three options: Release Bully with the R rating; put the film out without a rating, which many theaters would effectively treat as the more restrictive NC-17; or re-edit the movie to either mute or cut the offending expletives, as the Weinstein team did with a post-Oscars version of The King's Speech. Bully is due to be released March 30, so time is running out.
Might the MPAA cave?
"Doubtful," says Joshua L. Weinstein at The Wrap. "There is no procedure in place to change a rating once the Classification and Rating Appeals Board has made a decision."
Why don't the filmmakers just edit out the F-bombs?
Weinstein and Bully director Lee Hirsch say it would needlessly weaken the film. The swear words "convey the intensity of bullying," Hirsch tells Deadline Hollywood. "I don't want this to be sanitized, it's a critical piece of what makes this film powerful." Besides, it's past time for the MPAA to "overhaul its ludicrously inflexible language constraints," says Patrick Goldstein in the Los Angeles Times. "Hearing a nasty bully shout obscenities at a timid 14-year-old in a documentary... about bullying is just not in the same ballpark as hearing a drunken high school partygoer bellow F-bombs in a bratty teen comedy." The ratings should reflect that "not every F-bomb sounds alike."
Would an R rating really be so bad?
It could certainly be an obstacle for some teens, says James Alan Fox in The Boston Globe. "For many adolescents, there are few things more embarrassing than being seen in the theater sitting next to their parents." On the other hand, studies have shown that an R rating only makes adolescents more eager to see a film. And teens could always "sidestep the MPAA morality marshals by waiting until the film is released on DVD or on cable."