A battle over film ratings continued to escalate Thursday, as a chorus of filmmakers and lawmakers called on the Motion Picture Assn. of America to replace the “R” given to the teen-bullying documentary “Bully” with a less severe PG-13.
Hoping to defuse the controversy, the MPAA's chief, former U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, held a screening and panel discussion at the group’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., that featured the movie's director, distributor and subject. But the event turned into a forum for further criticism, with panelists and audience members charging that the MPAA was failing in its mission to guide parents and protect children.
"[People] believe in the system, but the system is letting them down,” said director Lee Hirsch, addressing Dodd. “We need leadership and your faith … to overturn” this ruling.
“Bully,” which will be released by the Weinstein Co. in Los Angeles on March 30, centers on five families whose children have been victims of bullying. The fly-on-the-wall film does not contain an abundance of explicit content; however, in one scene, one teen hurls harsh profanities at another child.
That prompted the R rating, which means that moviegoers under age 17 must be accompanied by an adult. The Weinstein Co. and subjects of the film say that the requirement to see the movie with an adult will deter many teens from going.
But the MPAA has held firm, saying that without a new edit of the film there is no provision for invalidating the rating.
In an interview, Dodd added that even if there was, he couldn’t ignore a perceptual issue. “I’m stuck,” he said. “If we change the ruling in this case, I’ll have 10 other filmmakers lined up saying they shouldn’t be given the R. And who are we to say why this film should be different than the others?”
The MPAA takes the position that it does not make qualitative judgments -- that is, it does not wade into the content of a film but merely uses a set of objective criteria to determine a rating. As long as the profanity-laden scene remains, Dodd said, the MPAA’s hands are tied.
The issue has turned into a hot-button issue for activists -- and a major publicity headache for the MPAA. After the group's ratings board denied a Weinstein Co. appeal, grass-roots organizers and the Weinstein Co. publicity machine went into overdrive. As Weinstein Co. issued statements about the unfairness of the ruling--they argue, among other things, that the scene comes in the context of a documentary and is there for authenticity's sake--a Michigan teenager who was a victim of bullying started an online petition to change the rating.
The petition soon came to the attention of Weinstein Co. chief Harvey Weinstein, who at this year’s Oscar ceremony alerted celebrities such as Meryl Streep. The actress signed the document, as have Drew Brees, Ellen DeGenres and Justin Bieber. The number of signees now exceeds 300,000. (Many signatures also trigger personal emails to the MPAA; at least one official at the group has seen his in-box flooded with more than 200,000 such messages.)
The rating controversy has touched off a debate about the practices of an industry trade group that self-polices its content, prompting calls for more transparency and flexibility. “Why can’t [the movie] get a PG-13 with an ‘E’ for ‘Exception’ next to it?” Weinstein said in an interview at a D.C. hotel before he appeared on the panel Thursday. “There’s nothing stopping them from looking at this and doing something about it.”
Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Lakewood), who is part of a group of more than two dozen lawmakers drafting a letter to Dodd asking for the decision to be overturned, told The Times that she saw an irony in the MPAA’s ruling.
“This is a movie that’s all about protecting kids, and the fact that they would offer a rating that won’t let kids see it seems really counterintuitive,” she said.
Meanwhile, Weinstein and Hirsch have said they won’t edit the scene. To do so, they said, would be to dilute its impact, a position echoed by the film’s subjects.
“Our reality is not censored,” Kelby Johnson, a teen who appears in the film, said as she stood up to speak from the audience at the panel. “Since when did curse words become more important than children’s lives?"
As panelists and victims pressed Dodd, he sought to steer the subject back to the issues raised by the film. “I don’t want [the ratings issue] to step all over what Lee crafted,” the MPAA chief said.
But Hirsch remained steadfast. “The R is stepping over it, and that’s the problem,” he said.
The discussion grew sufficiently intense that Weinstein, who has a longstanding relationship with Dodd, came to his defense. “I just want people to understand that the senator is a good man,” Weinstein said. If he had a vote on the appeals board, Weinstein added, “I have a feeling...he would have voted our way.”
Weinstein said that he wants to use the film as a lever to help pass the Safe Schools Improvement Act, an anti-bullying bill that has been stalled on Capitol Hill for several years.
The issue may yet gain steam in Congress in other ways: a mock hearing about both bullying and the rating is in the early stages of development, according to a congressional source who asked not to be identified because plans for it were not yet firm.
Weinstein said in an interview that if the MPAA didn’t lower the film to a PG-13 he would choose to release the movie without a rating, a risky move because, while it means teens could go by themselves, many theater chains shy away from showing unrated films in the first place. (The head of AMC, one of the nation's largest chains, has suggested that he would show it even if it was unrated.)
Parents who appear in the film also have criticized the MPAA’s decision. David Long, whose son Tyler hanged himself as a result of bullying, said that he was at a loss to explain the MPAA’s policy that multiple four-letters word net an R, but a single instance rates only a PG-13.
“If it can be said once, what's the difference between one and six?” he said on the panel, as he implored Dodd to change the rating so that schools will be more willing to show it. “I mean, [the obscenity] is already out there.”
Lawmakers say they see another false distinction, particularly when it comes to violent movies such as the upcoming “Hunger Games,” which did not get an R.
“The hypocrisy is that the very movies that contribute to violence can be seen by teenagers because they get a PG-13,” Rep. Hansen Clarke (D-Mich) told The Times. “And the one film that actually teaches them to respect others is given an R.”
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'Bully' seeks ratings change (and exposure)
With Ellen DeGeneres and Drew Brees, ‘Bully’ battle goes celeb
-- Steven Zeitchik in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Alex Libby, one of the bullied children in "Bully." Credit: Weinstein Co.