Last Thursday, The Weinstein Company (TWC) lost an appeal to have the MPAA rating of its upcoming documentary Bully, about the epidemic of adolescent bullying in America, changed from R to PG-13.
But TWC has never been one to shy away from a fight, and now the studio is publicly challenging the MPAA’s decision. Its latest weapon: a Feb. 24 letter sent to TWC co-chairman Harvey Weinstein from National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) president and CEO John Fithian, who informs Weinstein that should the studio release Bully unrated, the film may be treated like an NC-17 movie by many exhibitors.
As part of a press release issued today, TWC included the NATO letter in its entirely. In the letter, Fithian tells Weinstein that the studio’s decision to publicly ridicule the MPAA’s decision was unwise. “The vast majority of parents surveyed have indicated that the type of language used in Bully should receive an automatic R rating,” writes Fithian. “You ask us to ignore the preferences of America’s parents and our own ratings rules because of the merit of this movie. Yet were the MPAA and NATO to waive the ratings rules whenever we believed that a particular movie had merit, or was somehow more important than other movies, we would no longer be neutral parties applying consistent standards, but rather censors of content based on personal mores.”
Fithian went on to stress that should TWC release Bully without an MPAA rating, it would be treated by theater owners in the same manner as any unrated movie. “In most cases, that means enforcement as though the movies were rated NC-17,” claims Fithian. Such a theater policy would prohibit children under the age of 18 from seeing Bully — even if they were accompanied by an adult.
The decision on how to handle an unrated film ultimately varies among theater companies. “Some companies treat them all like they’re NC-17 because they don’t want to have to sit down and come up with their own policy for every different unrated movie,” NATO spokesman Patrick Corcoran told EW. “Others will watch them and decide, ‘Well, this is like an R-rated movie.'”
In the press release, TWC COO David Glasser said the studio was currently in negotiations with attorneys, and that every action will be taken to recant NATO’s letter. Co-chairmen Harvey and Bob Weinstein also issued the following statement: “As a company we have the utmost respect for the National Association of Theatre Owners, but to suggest that the film Bully could ever be treated like an NC-17 film is completely unconscionable, not to mention unreasonable.”
Of course, releasing Bully as unrated is only one possible avenue for TWC. Alternatively, the studio could edit or mute the more offensive instances of profanity, which TWC decided to do when it released a PG-13 version of The King’s Speech after it won Best Picture last year. Or TWC could release Bully with its current R rating. Children under the age of 17 would have to attend the movie with a guardian, but at least the documentary would avoid being handled like an NC-17 title by some theaters. However, we already know what path the studio will take in advance of Bully‘s March 30 release date. “I’ll just lay down and accept [the MPAA's decision],” Harvey Weinstein joked Sunday at the Oscars. “Not.”
This whole controversy over Bully raises the issue of whether the MPAA’s ratings system, which is often criticized for being harsh toward profanity and sexual content but surprisingly lenient when it comes to violence, deserves to be revamped. It also brings up the tricky question of whether some movies, such as documentaries with a positive social message, deserve to be rated using the same rubric as more traditional Hollywood fare. For instance, a high school student in Michigan started an online petition urging the MPAA to reconsider its rating for Bully because the film could “help reduce violence in schools.” As of this writing, the petition has gathered more than 110,000 signatures.