‘Bully’ Re-Rated PG-13: Has the Movie’s Ratings Win Broken the MPAA?

Everyone can breathe easy now. After a months-long public battle over the R-rating for “Bully,” in which outrage over the standards of the MPAA ratings board overshadowed outrage over the epidemic of vicious student-on-student harassment depicted in the documentary, both sides have kissed and made up. When it expands nationwide next weekend, the film will be rated PG-13, a concession from the ratings board made in return for a similar concession from the distributor, the Weinstein Company, which agreed to trim offending language out of three scenes in the film. The resolution of the dispute is good news for schools and church groups that may have wanted to screen the film for parents and kids but were put off by its harsh language. It’s also good for the Weinstein Company, which may be able to get a wider release for the film than it would have had the film’s unrated cut, released on five screens last weekend, been the only one available. And it’s even good for the ratings board, which gets to look like it did the right thing and overrode its own stodgy, rigid rules, even though it did no such thing. In fact, the only group for whom this is not good news: people who hoped that the latest Weinstein-vs.-MPAA battle would lead to reform of an antiquated ratings assignment system that seems to stifle the free expression of marginal voices while protecting a corporate monopoly. Even though the Weinstein Company isn’t a dues-paying member of the MPAA, and even though Harvey Weinstein battled it many times over content issues over the last 25 years, the relationship between the Weinsteins and the MPAA seems more symbiotic than antagonistic. After all, no one has been better than the Weinsteins at turning MPAA squabbles into publicity bonanzas, attracting viewers to movies the board has found too risqué. The MPAA seemed to be playing along to the usual script this time, arguing that, no matter how meritorious the movie, it wouldn’t set a dangerous precedent by violating its own rules about how few f-words it takes to earn a movie an automatic R. Harvey Weinstein, too, stuck to the script, vowing not to trim the movie and threatening to stop submitting his films to the MPAA altogether. Indeed, his decision to release ‘Bully’ unrated (albeit in just five venues) last weekend seemed to make good on his vows. In fact, Weinstein didn’t keep either promise. The company did, in fact, cut the curse words out of three scenes, and aside from “Bully,” it’s still submitting its movies to the MPAA and abiding by the board’s decision. Just this week, the Weinstein Company submitted “Pirhana 3DD” to the board and got the R-rating the distributor expected and deserved, for profanity, gore, drug use, and nudity. Meanwhile, MPAA chief Chris Dodd told The Hollywood Reporter of his 25-year friendship with Harvey Weinstein and how he co-hosted a screening of “Bully” with Weinstein even while the mogul was publicly feuding with Dodd’s organization over the movie. The MPAA caved a little as well. It allowed the distributor to leave intact the movie’s key scene, in which student Alex Libby is bullied on a school bus, in a rant filled with enough profanity to have earned the film an R-rating on its own. And it allowed TWC to submit a re-edited cut for release even while the original version is still in theaters, a conflict the board usually averts by insisting on a 90-day gap between submissions, so as to avoid confusion in the marketplace. But then, the MPAA has allowed a similar waiver before — it did so just last year, when TWC submitted a re-edit of “The King’s Speech” (a movie rated R just for language) and allowed TWC to release the less profane cut with a PG-13 rating while the original was still in theaters. (Then as now, Weinstein argued that the film, which went on to sweep at the Oscars and win Best Picture, was so good on its merits that the MPAA ought to overlook all the F-bombs, which Weinstein and the director argued were crucial to the storytelling… until they weren’t.) The one unprecedented act here was the decision of some major theater chains (AMC, Regal, and Carmike) to treat the unrated “Bully” as an R-rated movie instead of as an unbookable NC-17 and to allow kids under 17 to see it if they brought parental permission slips. As a result, the movie earned a very strong $23,000 per screen in last weekend’s limited release, though only 10 percent of those tickets were sold to unaccompanied kids. These events had some outsiders thinking that Weinstein had broken the power of the MPAA instead of reinforcing it. Content watchdogs the Parents Television Council warned that “Bully”‘s unrated release “threatens to derail the entire ratings system” and “may well spell the demise of a system that has benefited parents and families for over forty years.” Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein thought the same thing, though he suggested that the demise of the ratings board would be a good thing. He cited as an analogy the 1948 unrated release in America of Italian classic “The Bicycle Thief,” an end-run around the Hays Office censors whose seal of approval was required on all Hollywood films. Goldstein suggests that both “Bully” and “The Bicycle Thief” had broken the power of their respective censorship boards in similar and equally successful fashion, though “Bully”‘s wider box office success is not yet assured, and though it still took another 20 years after “Bicycle Thief” for the Hays Office to collapse, to be replaced by the system we have today. In the statement that ratings board chair Joan Graves issued after Thursday’s decision, she said, “The ratings system has worked exactly as it is supposed to. Parents have been kept informed of the content of each version of the film, and they have been given the information they need to make the movie-going decisions on behalf of their kids.” That’s hard to swallow, given the board’s violation of its own rule allowing competing, contradictory versions of a film into the marketplace at the same time. If anything, parents are likely to be more confused. Graves has often said that the board’s primary purpose is to inform parents about objectionable content (and not to censor objectionable content by issuing commercially restrictive ratings for it). But it’s worth remembering that the initial purpose of the MPAA’s ratings board, after the demise of the Hays Office in 1968, was to protect the studios from the threat of government censorship by showing that Hollywood could police itself. In practice, as the 2006 documentary “This Movie Is Not Yet Rated” demonstrated, the ratings board has often been more about protecting and accommodating the six major studios that pay the MPAA’s salaries (and not the independent distributors like TWC that are not MPAA members) than about protecting kids from violent content or keeping parents informed. The MPAA has long been harsher on profanity and sexuality than on violence, something “Bully” director Lee Hirsch noted earlier this week in comparing the PG-13 earned by “The Hunger Games,” which shows teens killing each other, to the R that “Bully” initially earned for scenes of kids verbally abusing each other. Libby, too, noted the absurdity of the board’s standards, stating during the movie’s initial appeal of its R rating that the board had effectively barred him from watching a movie constructed from his own life. If anything shows how out of touch the ratings board is, it’s the online petition, started by bullied teen Katy Butler, urging the MPAA to lower “Bully”‘s rating from R to PG-13. The petition attracted more than 500,000 signatures and the support of some high-profile people, including Johnny Depp, Ellen DeGeneres, Meryl Streep, and 35 members of Congress. Not that the petition swayed the MPAA (it took the edits to do that). But it does put the lie to the notion that the anonymous California parents who make up the ratings board represent the typical opinion of parents nationwide. If the petition is any indication, parents don’t mind subjecting their kids to a little verbal violence if it’s in the service of keeping them safe from real violence. At the very least, parents who support the “Bully” petition have also shown themselves capable of assessing a movie’s content in context, something the cuss-word counters at the MPAA seem unable to do. Which means that the MPAA can no longer convincingly claim to represent the interest of parents, who are its supposed constituency. If “Bully” does serve as a catalyst toward an eventual overhaul of the ratings system, it won’t be because of how the movie earned a PG-13 but because of how it showed that the ratings board isn’t even performing the one service it claims to do.

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