Documentary Bully is hitting theaters unrated after repeated attempts by the film’s distributor The Weinstein Company (TWC) to lower the film’s rating to PG-13, which was given an R rating by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) .
Picked up by TWC at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival, the film focuses on the effects of bullying by following five teens—of differing races and socio-economic backgrounds—throughout the school year. The company is targeting teen and tween audiences, hoping the film will imbue a message of standing up to, instead standing by, similar abuses. Bullying, the film and advocates assert, has become an epidemic in American schools. Director Lee Hirsch, who has discussed his own history of being bullied as a child, claims that the film is meant to educate parents, teachers, school officials and children.
Due to some harsh language, however, the film was slapped with an R rating making it difficult for its intended adolescent audience to see the documentary. Under current MPAA guidelines, PG-13 films can only include the f-word once. TWC appealed the decision in February but refused to cut content from the film. During an appeal, Bully lost its chance at PG-13 by a single a vote.
In protest, TWC will be releasing the film without an MPAA rating. Major theatre chains may not carry the film as exhibitors usually side with the ratings system. The notable exception is AMC CEO Jerry Lopez who criticized the automatic R rating of the MPAA.
“The message, the movie and its social relevance defy that kind of formulaic, conventional thinking. AMC will show this movie, and we invite our guests to engage in the dialogue its relevant message will inevitably provoke,” Lopez reportedly said.
Lopez was not alone in his support for Hirsch’s film. Politicians, schools, parents, celebrities and activists have argued for the film’s PG-13 rating. Michigan student, and bully victim, Katy Butler gathered over half a million signatures on Change.org in support of Bully.
“The small amount of language in the film that’s responsible for the R rating is there because it’s real. It’s what the children who are victims of bullying face on most days. All of our supporters see that, and we’re grateful for the support we’ve received across the board. I know the kids will come, so it’s up to the theaters to let them in” Hirsch has said.
Joan Graves, chairman of the Classification and Rating Administration with the MPAA, issued a statement declaring that “The MPAA also has the responsibility to acknowledge and represent the strong feedback from parents throughout the country who want to be informed about content in movies, including language. The R rating is not a judgment on the value of any movie. The rating simply conveys to parents that a film has elements strong enough to require careful consideration before allowing their children to view it.”
One scene, which helped pushed the film to an R-rating, depicts a ride on the bus where one student tells another that he’ll “f—ing end [him] and shove a broomstick up [his] a–. I’ll cut [his] face off and s–t.” The films creators contend that this is no worse than what kids hear everyday on the playground and provides a dose of gritty reality. This goes hand in hand with Bully’s theme that the real damage of bullying isn’t only physical, but rather that it creates deep, and perhaps irrevocable, emotional and mental scars.
Bully isn’t TWC’s first brush with the MPAA. In 2010, they clashed over the film Blue Valentine which garnered an NC-17 rating after depicting an oral sex scene. TWC won an appeal with that film without making content changes.
Bully opens in New York City at the Angelika Theatre and AMC Lincoln Square on March 30.
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