Harvey Weinstein on ratings battle: I'm not just hiring legal big guns to get PR for my movies
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.
RECENT AND RELATED: TO THE MPAA, 'THE KING'S SPEECH' IS JUST AS BAD AS 'SAW 3D'
Photo: Colin Firth portrays King George VI in a scene from "The King's Speech." Credit: Laurie Sparham/ Associated Press/The Weinstein Co.