The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

« Previous Post | The Big Picture Home | Next Post »

Harvey Weinstein on ratings battle: I'm not just hiring legal big guns to get PR for my movies

Colin_firth Harvey Weinstein has been quietly fuming for weeks over the MPAA ratings board, which has slapped two of his company's films with what he considers overly restrictive ratings. "The King's Speech," a leading best picture Oscar contender about an Australian speech therapist who helps Britain's King George VI conquer a terrible stammer, was slapped with an R rating for one scene in which the royal curses to help cure his stutter. "Blue Valentine," a dark romantic look at two young lovers in a crumbling marriage, was given an NC-17 rating because of a scene  involving oral sex.

But Weinstein, who has been uncharacteristically silent for months, is ready to roar again. He  announced Thursday that he's hired a team of superstar lawyers to oversee his company's appeals of both cases. The legal eagles include fabled Hollywood litigator Bert Fields; David Boies, who helped lead the legal challenge to overturn California's Prop 8 ban on gay marriage; and Alan Friedman, who has been involved in a host of previous ratings battles. In an exclusive interview, Weinstein said he was confident of winning both cases, especially the appeal for "Blue Valentine," whose slim commercial chances would be hurt the most if it were saddled with the scarlet letter of an NC-17 rating, which would prevent most theater chains from playing the film starring Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling.  

"I've always felt that the ratings board saw what wasn't there," Weinstein told me, referring to the scene in "Blue Valentine" involving simulated oral sex. "It's just a credit to the persuasiveness of Derek Cianfrance's directing skills. There's no oral sex. Michelle Williams isn't even naked. It looks like she is, but it's just the angle of the shots."

As part of Weinstein's appeal of the rating, Cianfrance and his actors can appear before the board to argue their case. Although many filmmakers have unsuccessfully argued their case in the past, Weinstein believes this time things will be different. "When we show the board how the movie was filmed, with Derek and Ryan and Michelle explaining it to them, I think that will change their minds."

There are skeptics, myself included, who wonder if this last-minute challenge isn't just another inspired Weinstein PR campaign to gain attention for his films, which are due for release in the coming weeks. Weinstein has pretty much written the book on creating controversy for embattled films, dating back to 1990, when he sued the MPAA after it gave an X rating to Pedro Almodóvar's "Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!"

Weinstein lost that fight, although the battle did prompt the MPAA to replace the X rating with the NC-17. Weinstein has played the celebrity lawyer card in the past as well. In 1991, he hired Alan Dershowitz to monitor the national TV networks after ABC, CBS and NBC refused to air ads for the film "The Pope Must Die."

"I know that I've done a lot of that in the past," he acknowledged. "It was always great fun, when Jack Valenti was still alive, for us to joust with each other over some of my movies. We really had a great time arguing about the 1st Amendment. But in this case, especially with 'Blue Valentine,' the NC-17 rating really jeopardizes the movie's box office chances, which are really fragile as it is. I'm not hiring big-gun lawyers just for the PR value. I'm looking to them for their brains and thoroughness. My movies' livelihoods are at stake."

Weinstein says that Fields, who is overseeing the appeal for "The King's Speech," has an unusual argument in mind to help overturn the film's R rating. "Bert actually has a strategy involving the contextualization of the swear words," Weinstein explained. "The way the filmmakers won with the British ratings board [which eased up on its initial rating] was they argued that the F-words were used in a speech therapy manner. They were simply used as a way to channel the king's anger. They weren't used as swear words. And I think that winning in England, where the board is almost as unyielding as it is here, bodes well for us."

However, Weinstein faces a procedural problem with his appeal on "The King's Speech." He is requesting what is known as a "special hearing" with the MPAA, which is necessary because the film is now within 25 business days of its theatrical release. But according to MPAA rules, filmmakers can only have a special hearing if their appeal is filed "not more than 25 days after the date when the rating is certified" as well as within 25 days of its actual release.

Since "The King's Speech" was given its rating more than a month ago, it would only be eligible for a special hearing if Joan Graves, the head of the appeals board, grants a waiver because the filmmakers were unable to comply with the deadlines.

I find it hard to imagine that Graves will revisit the ratings decision, since when I spoke to her several weeks ago she was firm in her belief that the MPAA was justified in awarding an R to "The King's Speech," even if it meant that the MPAA was putting a heartwarming history lesson in the same ratings category as "Saw VII" and "Jackass 3D." Graves wouldn't comment for this story, instructing an MPAA spokesperson to say that "we have not yet been contacted by the Weinstein Co. about an appeal."  

When I told Weinstein that he needed Graves to grant "The King's Speech" a waiver for it to be considered for a special hearing, he sounded unfazed. "My bet is that this is the kind of movie she likes. I can't imagine someone as erudite and intelligent as Joan not having an open mind about this. I know she doesn't really want to have people wondering why my brother Bob's movie, 'Piranha 3D' has the same rating as 'The King's Speech.' I mean, Bob is laughing about how much he got away with in 'Piranha' while his poor brother Harvey is getting killed here with a movie that most kids would think is a Disney movie."

I wish I was as hopeful as Weinstein is about his films getting a fair hearing. But even some sly flattery aimed at Joan Graves probably won't do the trick. The MPAA not only gets to make up its own rules about what ratings to give movies, but it seems to live in its own alternate universe when it comes to what sort of language and sexual situations merit a firm hand from the ratings police. Fields and Boies may have won a ton of legal battles, but they'll have their hands full going up against the ratings board.


Photo: Colin Firth portrays King George VI in a scene from "The King's Speech." Credit: Laurie Sparham/ Associated Press/The Weinstein Co.


Comments () | Archives (5)

The comments to this entry are closed.

Ok, is it me, or is the headline gibberish?

Yeah the headline is gibberish but perfect for a guy like him, right?

Looks like the MPAA is still restricting artistic freedom.

Worth renting the documentary, "This Film Is Not Yet Rated", directed by Kirby Dick. You won't believe what some filmmakers suffer through with the MPAA.

Interesting discussion after the NYC premiere. It was brought up that why is censorship still in place for films, when we would never tolerate it for books...?

It was not TIE ME UP! TIE ME DOWN! that brought on the change to NC-17 but HENRY AND JUNE, a film released by Universal to which Jerk Valenti could not give an X because it was then owned by his puppeteer Lew Wasserman. It's also worth noting that none of the controversial X and NC-17 films since LAST TANGO IN PARIS (1973) have been sufficiently supported by theatrical audiences to justify the hullabaloo.

Rick Mitchell
Film editor/Film Historian

Academy Award nominated producer Harvey Weinstein is making a smart decision by beginning to hire lawyers who might influence the MPAA to reconsider how they are rating the films being released by his production company, The Weinstein Company. All of the films that Harvey Weinstein has produced are sensitive to the nature that they can exude, mostly relating to strong language, graphic sexuality, and real looking violence. It's easy to tell that films produced by Harvey Weinstein are thought to be put together in safe and practical manners when considering what it is being depicted in any given scene, and how the audience should feel about viewing them. This is the case in point that Weinstein needs to make light of with the MPAA, that the movies he is producing are continually being mistaken for concerning things that don't and shouldn't apply to them; clearly, movies produced by The Weinstein Company don't exhibit what the MPAA would normally and justly feel the need to condemn with an R rating, but in fact are presently receiving this treatment from the MPAA. Such is the case with 'The King's Speech,' where what is meant to be depicted in the movie is much more at risk to being subject to an R rating than what is actually taking place on-screen. 'Pulp Fiction,' a movie also produced by Bob and Harvey Weinstein, is another good example of this, where the movie's content is scarier to imagine than the movie's violent scenes. Most people would have to agree that Weinstein tries to demonstrate as much good taste in producing a quality film as possible, and that also means being careful of not falling into the traps of making too graphic a film when it comes to what the MPAA makes its decisions on when they rate a new release. It seems this is almost a special talent that Harvey Weinstein possesses alone, and continues to makes a common practice of. One might agree that 'Pulp Fiction' shouldn't bare the R rating that the MPAA gave to the movie, now that it has been over fifteen years since the film's release, and the movie continues to bring in many of its interested younger viewers. In closing, Harvey Weinstein is making a good move by hiring lawyers to examine the subject of how the films that he produces are being rated, and he might make some real progress by doing so.

Brendan Ryan

The Brendan Ryan Company
Houston, Texas


Recommended on Facebook


In Case You Missed It...

Stay Connected:

About the Bloggers



Get Alerts on Your Mobile Phone

Sign me up for the following lists: