Harvey Weinstein has been called many thing over the course of his career as a movie mogul – an opportunist, a visionary, a trendsetter, a bully – and he has proven to be all of these things during the course of his fight with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) over the R rating given to the documentary film, Bully, which will be released in select theaters on Friday. Most of all, he has proven during this controversy to be shrewd, crafty, and brilliant as it relates to using this situation to bring much needed advertising to a film very few people were going to see in the first place.
Bully is a film about the epidemic of bullying in our nation’s schools. It tells the stories of outcast kids who are terrorized by their peers, and the adults that don’t listen to or help them. Obviously, this is an important subject for a documentary, and as a teacher, I’m looking forward to seeing it, and hope I can use some of its better moments in my classroom to educate my students. But let’s be honest, unless the film has talking, fighting robots, kids murdering kids, or drunken, party-going, pot smoking teens, the intended audience is going to stay away in droves. As a matter of fact, had this controversy not even existed, Bully would have stayed out of the national consciousness, made a little bit of money in a limited run playing independent and prestige theaters in major cities, and eventually landed on Netflix’s Watch Instantly service where a handful of the intended audience might have chosen to watch it late at night, if at all. Don’t tell me Weinstein didn’t already forsee this when he bought the rights to distribute this documentary. Of course, he did.
But the MPAA threw him a fastball high and inside and, like Albert Pujols, he knocked the shit out of it. By refusing to give Bully a PG-13 rating, the MPAA revealed itself to the American public, not just industry insiders and cinephiles, as a hypocritical, incredibly subjective, censorship organization. Weinstein has taken every opportunity to show this to be true, comparing Bully’s R (for coarse language) to The Hunger Games’s PG-13 (for bloody child-on-child violence), and now working with AMC to release the film as “unrated” and allowing children under 17 to see it with parental guidance, or permission slip (which AMC just announced will be available Wednesday on their website). Weinstein has made Bully a national conversation, inciting a litany of op-eds, Facebook posts, Twitter status updates, and even a young girl in Michigan to file a petition requesting the MPAA change its mind. Free advertising and word-of-mouth is gold, and Weinstein has insured that a much larger audience is going to see Bully. Of course, no one’s going to camp outside their local AMC to be the first in their neighborhood to catch a midnight screening, but when kids are told they aren’t allowed to see something, of course they want nothing more than to see it. I imagine Weinstein will be adding the MPAA board to his Christmas card list this year.
Even more importantly, though, Weinstein has people talking about the MPAA’s rating system. He tried to get the conversation started last year when he re-released The King’s Speech as a PG-13 film with the one scene of cursing edited, but it didn’t take. No one cared about defending the integrity of an Oscar-winning film, and most saw it as a cash grab (which it no doubt was). But, Bully is a different sort of film, smaller, independent, and an underdog. No one was going to rush to protect the stuttering king who had just struck gold at the Oscars, but people love to root for the beaten and downtrodden. By re-casting the MPAA as bullies, Weinstein has people discussing the merits of the ratings system, and I think it is only a matter of time before we begin to see some major changes coming our way. The biggest change would be to remove the MPAA ratings altogether and devise a new system, like the one from Common Sense Media that merely suggests an appropriate age group for each film (both The Hunger Games and Bully received a 13+ rating, meaning they are appropriate for audience’s 13 and older).
Something this simple, and less dramatic, would be far more helpful to parents and to filmmakers, who often avoid making adult-themed films, like last year’s Shame, because the dreaded NC-17 destroys all chances to be played in most local theaters. The current ratings system forces studios and filmmakers to make considerable edits and compromises with their work in order to fit into a specific rating category. This has created all sorts of questions and controversies over the years, many of which were well documented in Kirby Dick’s excellent This Film Is Not Yet Rated. A new system might bring more liberation for the modern filmmaker, as Jack Valenti’s current system did for them back in 1968, when movies were governed by the much harsher Hays Code.
Whether or not Bully is a good film remains to be seen (for me, at least – I intend to see it in Hollywood this Friday), but it already has become one of the most important films of this century. It may even become the most important if Weinstein’s efforts in marketing the film independently from the MPAA has the result of changing the face of movie ratings forever.