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'Bully' does well in limited debut

April 1, 2012 |  5:29 pm


The ratings controversy seems to have boosted “Bully” at the box office.

Lee Hirsch’s teen-bullying documentary, released in a total of five theaters in Los Angeles and New York this past weekend, grossed $115,000, according to an estimate from distributor the Weinstein Co.

The $23,000 per-screen average is strong given the film’s genre. Two recent, reasonably successful issue-oriented documentaries, “Food, Inc.” and “Inside Job,” each tallied a slightly lower per-screen average of $20,000 in their limited-release openings. Those movies went on to gross a solid $4 million to $5 million at the domestic box office. It remains to be seen, however, whether “Bully” can capitalize on the solid start as its publicity glow fades.

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“Bully,” which examines five families affected by bullying, was given an R rating by the Motion Picture Assn. of America for the use of profanity. (An R means that children younger than 17 can see the film only if accompanied by an adult.)

After the MPAA’s appeals board upheld the rating, the Weinstein Co. howled in protest and a grass-roots movement sprang up. Nearly 500,000 people — including Meryl Streep, Justin Bieber and Johnny Depp — signed a petition started by a Michigan teenager that urged the MPAA to change the film’s rating to PG-13, which would allow teens to see it without an adult. The publicity made many  aware of a movie that they otherwise might not have heard about, and gave Harvey Weinstein a low-cost, high-profile platform to promote the film.

Weinstein eventually decided to release the movie without a rating, prompting a range of responses among theater owners. The country’s first- and fourth-largest chains, Regal Entertainment and Carmike Cinemas, said they would play the film but treat it as R-rated when it arrived in their theaters in mid-April. The third-largest chain, Cinemark, said it would not play the movie because it has a policy of not screening unrated films.

AMC, the nation’s second-largest chain, took the least restrictive tack: The company said it would play the movie and allow children younger than 17 to see it unaccompanied, providing they had permission from an adult. (AMC screens represented two of the five outlets showing the film this past weekend; the remainder were art house theaters.)

As it turned out, a vast majority of those who saw “Bully” were adults — 73% were at least 25 years old, and 41% were 35 and older, a Weinstein distribution executive said.

By the standard of unrated films, “Bully” did well, if not outstandingly so. A little more than a decade ago, Darren Aronofsky’s unrated drug drama “Requiem for a Dream,” which also had a high-profile debut after losing a battle with the MPAA, opened to $32,000 per screen in limited release.

“Bully” will expand to 50 markets on April 13. But the film’s unrated status is unlikely to be a factor then. A tweaked version is expected to be rated PG-13--that is the version that will be shown in wide release.


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--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: "Bully." Credit: Weinstein Co.