Who's the bully in this case -- movie mogul Harvey Weinstein or the MPAA ratings board?
As expected, the MPAA turned down Weinstein's appeal over the R-rating it gave to "Bully," a documentary about schoolhouse bullying. Due for release on March 30, "Bully" earned the restrictive rating on the basis of "some language." Arguing that the film's educational benefits outweighed the instances of profanity, Harvey Weinstein defended the film before the ratings board on Thursday, bringing along Alex Libby (one of the bullied kids in the film) to deliver a personal plea. Nonetheless, the board stuck by its initial decision; according to a TWC press release, "the final tally was one vote short of the number needed to reverse the decision."
Ratings battles are nothing new for Weinstein. The heavyweight producer has a quarter-century history of fighting with the MPAA over ratings. Sometimes he wins -- as with 2010's "Blue Valentine," which he successfully pleaded down from an NC-17 to an R, arguing that the oral sex scene at issue in the film was no more explicit than the one in "Black Swan," which came out at the same time but had no trouble earning an R. (The result: a wider release and an Oscar nomination for Michelle Williams.) Sometimes he doesn't; Weinstein was unsuccessful in pleading for a PG-13 rating for "The King's Speech," which also had some sprinkled profanity that had earned the film an R. While the handful of f-words were actually crucial to the plot, the MPAA determined that there were still too many f-bombs (that is, more than one) to avoid an R. The result, nonetheless: extra publicity, a domestic take of $139 million, and four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. (After the film had earned the bulk of its money, Weinstein did release a PG-13 version that silenced the offending words, but it barely made a peep at the box office.)
As with "The King's Speech," Weinstein's "Bully" appeal was based on the film's educational merit. "I want every child, parent, and educator in America to see 'Bully,' so it is imperative for us to gain a PG-13 rating," Weinstein said in a statement a few days ago. "It's better that children see bad language than bad behavior, so my wish is that the MPAA considers the importance of this matter as we make this appeal." Granted, maximizing the number of kids who can see the film also maximizes its profits, but the educational argument seems even more valid with "Bully" than with "Speech." Director Lee Hirsch's documentary is not a fictionalized retelling, and the filmmakers have developed an online trove of informational resources and calls to action to accompany the documentary.
That said, it's not at all clear that "Bully" would have less impact without its occasional "language." There's no reason that Weinstein, who usually has little reticence about editing the films he acquires, couldn't trim or silence the offending words in "Bully" in order to earn a PG-13. The MPAA's rule that one f-word means PG-13 and two means R may be arbitrary, but it's also one of the few explicit and well-defined edicts among the MPAA's often murky and inconsistent rationales behind its decision-making. As film critic Scott Mendelson noted, "This isn't about artistic freedom. The film will be released in theaters on March 30th, be it with an uncut R-rated version or an altered-PG-13 cut. But, however we might disagree with said ratings guidelines, Weinstein and company surely knew what they were and made the choice to intentionally flaunt them while they were editing their finished product."
Of course, don't expect Weinstein to stop pursuing the PG-13 rating for "Bully." Following the MPAA's decision, the TWC head released this impassioned statement:
As of today, The Weinstein Company is considering a leave of absence from the MPAA for the foreseeable future. We respect the MPAA and their process but feel this time it has just been a bridge too far.
I have been through many of these appeals, but this one vote loss is a huge blow to me personally. Alex Libby gave an impassioned plea and eloquently defended the need for kids to be able to see this movie on their own, not with their parents, because that is the only way to truly make a change.
With school-age children of my own, I know this is a crucial issue and school districts across the U.S. have responded in kind. The Cincinnati school district signed on to bus 40,000 of their students to the movie - but because the appeals board retained the R rating, the school district will have to cancel those plans.
I personally am going to ask celebrities and personalities worldwide, from Lady Gaga (who has a foundation of her own) to the Duchess of Cambridge (who was a victim of bullying and donated wedding proceeds) to First Lady Michelle Obama (whose foundation has reached out to us as well), to take a stand with me in eradicating bullying and getting the youth into see this movie without restriction.
Whether that bluster and celebrity firepower winds up working -- or whether "Bully" will be recut -- remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: you can't buy this kind of publicity.
The currently rated-R "Bully" arrives in limited release on March 30.