In a turn that allows both sides to claim victory, the Weinstein Co. announced Thursday it had reached an agreement with the Motion Picture Assn. of America to re-cut its unrated documentary “Bully” to land a PG-13 rating. The movie will now go out with that rating when it opens in about 115 new theaters next weekend.
The Times initially reported Friday that the distributor was planning a new version of the movie -- which focuses on the issue of teen bullying through the lens of five families -- so it could nab the lower rating.
The new cut of the Lee Hirsch film makes some concessions to the MPAA: It removes an obscenity that begins with the prefix “mother” in an early scene, along with two other quickly uttered F-words. Audio will be dropped out in all three instances.
But the new cut leaves intact a controversial scene on a school bus in which three F-words are used against a bullied child. The case now represents an exception to the MPAA’s rules; the group typically will impose an R rating on any film with more than two F-words.
Stephen Bruno, head of marketing for the Weinstein Co., told 24 Frames that “I can say with no stutter that we would have remained unrated if we had to change that scene.”
In an interview, Hirsch said that he felt satisfied by the results. “This was about drawing the line but not being utterly unreasonable,” he said. “What’s absolutely relevant is the scene that we retained. There was one [obscenity in another scene] I didn’t want to give up. But I didn’t want to hold back all the groups that wanted to see the movie, Boy and Girl Scout groups and school groups, that wouldn’t be able to go if we stayed unrated.”
The new rating means that children of any age can see the documentary without an adult. An R rating requires adults to accompany children under the age of 17; a PG-13 simply offers guidance without imposing an age minimum.
The new rating also means that all theater chains — including Cinemark, the nation’s third-largest, which has a policy against playing unrated films — can show the movie.
Weinstein Co. went out with the movie unrated after losing an appeals battle with the MPAA to knock the film down from an R; in the process, the company garnered buckets of free publicity as a grass-roots and celebrity-studded campaign to overturn the initial R rating gained momentum.
“Bully” opened last weekend in five theaters in L.A. and New York City as an unrated film. It did solid business, averaging $23,000 per screen.
The unexpurgated version of the movie will remain in those theaters this weekend, with the PG-13 print replacing all versions when the movie widens April 13. The MPAA bylaws require a 90-day waiting period between different cuts of a film but make an exception for movies that go from limited to wide release, as “Bully” is doing.
One person familiar with the situation who was not authorized to talk about it publicly said that Christopher Dodd, the former senator (D-Conn.) who runs the MPAA, was instrumental in making an exception on the three F-words, winning out over other personalities at the organization. Hirsch said that there was "an openness [at the MPAA] that had a lot to do with him.”
Asked about the exception via a spokesman, Joan Graves, head of the MPAA division that oversees ratings, released a statement that read, in part:
“Per the standard rating process available to all filmmakers, The Weinstein Company decided to resubmit a new, edited version of 'Bully' to be rated, and the ratings board gave this new version of the film a PG-13 rating for intense thematic material, disturbing content, and some strong language -- all involving kids.”
She continued, “In the case of 'Bully,' 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 movie-going decisions on behalf of their kids."
The issue has shined a light on the rules of the MPAA, which some critics have said are inconsistent and opaque, particularly when it comes to the issue of language. Hirsch said that he had no interest in turning this into a crusade — his main focus was attracting attention to the teen-bullying problem — but that he did believe this case could affect the practices of the MPAA.
“I think this has given fuel to a conversation that’s long overdue about the double standard when it comes to rating movies,” he said. “People say you can’t change the MPAA. But we’re not throwing something at a brick wall. It’s an organization made up of human beings, and like any other great institution it can be changed to better reflect what people want.”
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Alex Libby, one of the subjects of the documentary film "Bully," at the premiere March 26 in Los Angeles. Credit: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press