An MPAA compromise grants Bully a PG-13 rating
The power of social media strikes again.
One teenager from Michigan, Katy Butler, and 500,000+ signatures garnered by her online petition at change.org helped keep pressure on the Motion Picture Association of America over a controversial rating given to a documentary about peer abuse in schools. Yesterday a détente was announced: Despite still including three f-bombs in one crucial scene of a student being tormented on his school bus, the film Bully will be released one week from today with a PG-13 rating. Originally, the MPAA assigned the doc an R rating; to foster the downgrade, filmmakers agreed to drop the audio during three other instances of profanity in the film.
The PG-13-versus-R debate represents a crucial distinction, since the less-restrictive rating allows kids to see the film in cinemas and educators to book it in schools.
To be fair, it wasn't just the efforts of Butler that made the difference. One very media-savvy Hollywood mogul, Harvey Weinstein, also played a leading role in the ongoing drama. Still, he had appealed the MPAA rating in February to no avail, despite bringing one of the film’s bullied youth, Alex Libby, to testify before the board. It took more than a month of publicity from Butler’s petition—abetted by additional calls for change from Hollywood power players, members of Congress and prominent journalists—to make the difference.
You could even say that the blockbuster The Hunger Games played a role in the change, however inadvertently. Many pundits pointed out the seeming hypocrisy of a film about kids killing kids getting a PG-13 rating, while a documentary aiming to keep kids from bullying others into suicide received harsher treatment from the MPAA.
Back in late February, Time Out Chicago Kids interviewed the director, Lee Hirsch, shortly after the R rating was handed down. He told us at the time, "It's absurd to think that kids in middle school and high school could not choose to see a film that depicts their own lives, that’s honest and true and real. The irony is insane. After a year filming in schools, I can tell you there’s nothing new for kids in hearing profanity."
To avoid the R rating, the Weinstein Company had made the decision in March to release the film unrated—still an unsatisfactory solution, because most nationwide chains will not book unrated films. (In Chicago, AMC had agreed to show it, but other chains had not.) Bully opened in New York and Los Angeles one week ago as an unrated film, but the new version will be shown everywhere when it expands to a much wider release April 13.
In an interview with The Los Angeles Times this week about the tide change at the typically intractable MPAA, director Hirsch observed, "This was about drawing the line but not being utterly unreasonable. 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."
Although the MPAA’s guidelines are infamously murky, more than one instance of the f-word profanity typically results in an R rating. The school-bus scene that Hirsch refused to alter documented the systemic bullying one teen endured while everyone else, including the bus driver, ignored the intimidation. The filmmakers later showed the footage to disbelieving school officials, parents and police officers.
Bully opens April 13. Look for our review on Hipsqueak next week.