Is the MPAA a Film-Ratings Bully?

To avoid an R-rating, Weinstein issues its teen documentary as "unrated"
Courtesy Weinstein Company

On Friday, the award-winning documentary Bully will be released “unrated” by its distributor, The Weinstein Company. The film, which presents in raw detail the lives of five youths in different parts of America who suffer severe and persistent attacks from peers, was slapped with an “R” rating by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)  for profane language because the F-bomb gets dropped six times. Weinstein executives argue that such a rating (viewers must be 17+ without parents) would keep kids—its target audience—from seeing the film. So it is opening the documentary without the imprimatur of the industry’s rating system. That decision has drawn lots of media attention, but it won’t necessarily make it easier for kids to see the film.

That’s because releasing Bully unrated leaves the theater chains to set their own rules on the film’s appropriateness. According to John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, Cinemark has resolved not to show any unrated films “because they want to respect the rating system and encourage filmmakers to use the rating system.” Regal, meanwhile, will treat Bully as if it were an R-rated picture, and AMC Theatres will require parents or guardians to accompany kids under 17, or else sign authorization forms. “I don’t know of any theater that’s saying it’s going to play the film and it’s OK for kids to come without any parental involvement at all,” says Fithian. “This kind of begs the question why Harvey [Weinstein] released it unrated.”

To be sure, Bully, is not Disney-style fare.  At the start of the film, two of the five youngsters featured—an 11-year-old and a 17-year-old—have already taken their own lives to escape their tormentors. Nonetheless, arguing that childhood bullying is an important topic that deserves greater public discussion, the Weinsteins in February appealed the MPAA rating. A 17-year-old in Michigan started an online petition and gathered nearly half a million signatures in support of releasing Bully PG13. Celebrities like Justin Bieber and Meryl Streep came out for the cause.

The MPAA, however, upheld its decision. So rather than bleep out the expletives for a PG13 edit, TWC chose to release the film “unrated.” “This documentary shows what’s happening in schools every day,” says Stephen Bruno, president of marketing at TWC. “Kids can’t edit their lives.”

Fithian says there is a broader issue behind the industry’s position. “Harvey and the director keep saying that we should make an exception for this movie because it’s important and people don’t really care about language anyway,” the theater executive says. “That’s dangerous because it makes ratings officials into censors. People who rate the movies shouldn’t be deciding the quality or importance of the movies.”

Weinstein’s Bruno counters that TWC’s appeal wasn’t unprecedented. “We did not think we’d lose,” he says, noting that the MPAA in 2005 overturned an R rating to a PG13 rating for the Iraq War documentary Gunner Palace, which had 43 instances of the F-word. “The reasoning was that it was during the Iraq war and people needed to see it in its original version,” says Bruno. “Our argument is that the bullying that’s going on in school is also somewhat of a war, but a war in schools, and it also needs to be seen in its original version.”

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