Is the MPAA the real bully in the ratings fight over ‘Bully’?
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When it comes to staging a PR campaign, no one can hold a candle to Harvey Weinstein, who makes P.T. Barnum look like a taciturn Buddhist monk. Weinstein cannily beat the drums for “The Artist,” leading to an Academy Award for best picture and several other Oscars, and within days, he had set out on a new publicity blitz, this one for the release of the documentary “Bully.”
Weinstein’s hype for “Bully” is a classic from his playbook. It centers on the R rating that the Motion Picture Assn. of America gave the film, which is about the epidemic of bullying in American middle schools that has resulted in widespread psychic trauma and, in some instances, suicide.
Over the years, Weinstein has used or manufactured ratings controversies to buy free press for many movies, from the recent “Blue Valentine” all the way back to a 1990 lawsuit against the MPAA for giving an X rating to Pedro Almodóvar’s “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” (which led to the institution of the NC-17 rating). So when I heard about this one, I initially felt Weinstein was just crying wolf yet again.
If you haven’t been following, here’s what’s been happening, in a nutshell: The MPAA’s rating board gave “Bully” an R rating solely because several kids are overheard using the F-word in the film. Weinstein believes the film should get a PG-13, which would allow teens to see the movie even without a parent or guardian. He appealed the rating but was denied.
Weinstein was so upset that he claimed he was considering taking a “leave of absence” from submitting his films to the MPAA for ratings. That earned a fresh wave of publicity for the film, as well as a stern rebuke from John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, who informed Weinstein in a letter — one that Weinstein promptly publicized — that if Weinstein released his films unrated, theater owners would treat them as NC-17 rated films, meaning no minors allowed, even with parents or guardians.
At first, I was willing to side with Joan Graves, the MPAA ratings board chief, who told me last week that Weinstein knew the rules going in. If Weinstein wanted a PG-13, he could easily cut “Bully’s” bad language, as he did last year when he wanted to reach a broader audience — and make more money — with his 2011 Oscar winner, “The King’s Speech.” That film was initially rated R solely for language issues; Weinstein later cut the F-words and re-released the movie with a PG-13 rating, even going against the wishes of his filmmakers.
But when I got Weinstein on the phone, he had a new ace up his sleeve: “Gunner Palace,” a riveting 2005 documentary about an artillery squad’s wartime experiences in Iraq. The Palm Pictures film featured 42 examples of the F-word, 36 more than in “Bully,” but the MPAA, after hearing an appeal, agreed to give the film a PG-13 rating. Weinstein immediately pounced on the inconsistency.
“The board said they gave the film a PG-13 because there was a war going on and it was important for young people to see the film,” he told me. “But they set a precedent. I complimented them on the decision to give it a PG-13, but I said that there’s another war going on in America’s schools with bullying. So you have to think of the two movies in the same way.”
When I asked Graves about why the board was willing to overturn its rating decision for one movie and not for another, she argued that what happened in 2005 didn’t necessarily apply in 2012.
“It was a different time and a different appeal board,” she said. “[It was] also quite an anomaly. The overturn resulted in an acknowledgment of the important of consistency in the way we give information to parents about the level of content in a film.”
When it comes to explaining almost any ratings board inconsistencies, Graves tells her critics that the MPAA’s decisions reflect the attitude of America’s parents. When I denounced the board’s decision to give “The King’s Speech” an R last year simply because the film used a few curse words, Graves told me that, living in Los Angeles, I was out of touch with most American parents’ attitude toward language. Graves says parents in red-state, small-town America are far more wary of foul language than of graphic violence.
As it turns out, the MPAA was so stung by “The King’s Speech” controversy that it commissioned a study to see how much bad language actually bothers parents.
“After the language in ‘King’s Speech’ became a big issue, we did a survey to see if parents wanted us to overlook the language,” Graves told me. “And what we discovered was that, overwhelmingly, parents said they wanted to know what kind of language there was in the film. We asked specifically about the F-word, which clearly bothers a large number of people. That’s just how they feel. Language matters.”
According to Weinstein, Graves brought up the still-unreleased survey as an argument against “Bully” in his appeal hearing. “It was like a scene out of ‘Perry Mason,’” Weinstein recalled. “The news of the survey came out of nowhere. Joan summarized it in our hearing and it really hurt us. We lost our appeal by one vote and I think the survey cost us that vote.”
Graves told me she would eventually make the survey public but wouldn’t commit to a specific timetable. Weinstein argues that there’s no time like the present. “If it says what Joan says it does, she should release it,” he said. “If it makes a strong point, maybe we could learn from it. But I’d like to see the scientific evidence myself.”
Weinstein told me he was willing to screen “Bully” for parents anywhere in Middle America and live by the results, but Graves waved it off as unnecessary, since the MPAA already had its own survey results. Personally, I wouldn’t put much stock in whatever the study turned up, because the people who commission surveys often get the results they want.
When it comes to the baffling, often myopic ways of the MPAA’s rating board, I’m with Weinstein. The board’s ratings decisions are often an embarrassment, especially when it comes to language issues. With sex or violence, the ratings board has broad, often indecipherable leeway in deciding an R rating. But with language, no flexibility exists: If you have more than one F-word, you get an R. Why is one F-word OK, but not two? Don’t even ask.
The MPAA really needs to overhaul its ludicrously inflexible language constraints. If I’ve learned anything from making a living watching movies, it’s that every film is a unique artistic document. If the same kind of violence in one film can earn an R while earning a PG-13 in another, simply because of its intent or intensity, why can’t the same be true for the use of foul language?
Hearing a nasty bully shout obscenities at a timid 14-year-old in a documentary designed to raise our awareness about bullying is just not in the same ballpark as hearing a drunken high school partygoer bellow F-bombs in a bratty teen comedy. One alerts and educates us; the other titillates and, perhaps, entertains us.
But there’s a difference. And it’s long overdue for the MPAA’s rating board to figure out that when it comes to judging the impact of language in our movies, not every F-bomb sounds alike.
-- Patrick Goldstein