The public fracas around the now-surrendered R rating for a documentary called "Bully" has resurrected the argument about what some people deem the deepest flaw in the U.S. motion picture rating system. It's a fact that many movies are (and have been and will be) rated R because of the repeated use of a few choice words, ones that are unprintable here. The argument is that the restricted classification is being misapplied in some cases; that even when the use of so-called 'four-letter' words goes beyond an unspoken quota, the Motion Picture Association of America's ratings body needs to give due consideration of context or filmmaker intent.
"Bully" tells the story of kids being viciously bullied by other kids within their peer group, and how these assaults bruise and wound and maim, both psychologically and physically. Many reviewers -- all adults who likely remember to this day the ones who bullied them -- say it's not an easy film to take in, but also say that its overriding message is an important one, and recommend it.
When the movie was taken before the Classification and Ratings Administration, which is the official title of the MPAA ratings arm, the film received an R rating for the admittedly coarse words spoken by teenagers in the film.
The distributor, The Weinstein Company, cried foul. They argued that the movie is intended as a wake-up call to both adults and young people, that the tragic incidents discussed in the film are shameful and society -- particularly younger Americans -- need to act to stop future horrors. Because many movie theaters are more strictly enforcing policies that refuse to admit children under the age of 17 to R-rated films without an adult accompaniment, the distributor says that there's a risk that the young audience that most needs to see this film will be kept out.
Their argument was rejected by the CARA, which upheld the R rating. The distributor rejected the R, opting to release the film unrated. This decision has led to some theater chains to elect to treat the film as they would a movie with the NC-17 rating -- meaning no children under 17 will be admitted, period.
The film opened in five theaters (the Webster's dictionary definition of 'limited markets') last weekend, and drew more than $23,000 per theater during its first three days of release, according to the website Box Office Mojo (www.boxofficemojo.com). Incidentally, that's $9,000 more per theater than the weekend's box-office champ, the PG-13 rated "The Hunger Games," which played in more than 4,100 theaters.
Equating the two films by their ticket sales is a bit unfair. "Bully" is a small documentary, while "The Hunger Games" is a big-budget action-thriller based on a bestselling book series. "Bully" needs all the promotional muscle it can get; "The Hunger Games" has been the talk of traditional and social media for months now.
Is any of the "Bully" box office attributable to the firestorm -- and subsequent national publicity -- over its rating? All signs point to yes -- although, again, it is a critically-acclaimed documentary film and there is a sizable audience for such movies, especially in more populous parts of the country. (And, to be honest, all movies are made with the hope that someone -- or several million someones -- will pay money to see it, so there's no crime in making sure people know you've got a piece in the marketplace.) But would a movie like "Bully" do as well as "The Hunger Games" if released into as many theaters? In all probability, no, regardless of the rating.
Within the past few weeks, the issue of gratuitous violence versus strong language in films pitched toward younger audiences has come up again when talking about the "Bully" situation. Lee Hirsch, the film's director, while speaking at the Toronto, Canada, premiere of the film (where it has received a PG rating), called out the MPAA according to an article by Etan Vlessing of the trade publication The Hollywood Reporter. In Vlessing's story, Hirsch is quoted as saying, "I'm no expert on the MPAA, and there's lots of big issues, but one thing I realized is there's a great hypocrisy in allowing films that glorify -- and even sexify -- violence to get PG and PG-13 ratings time and time and time again." Later in the same article, Hirsch is also quoted as saying, when talking about when it came up that his film would be rated R for language, that he thought, "This is insane."
Hirsch's point about violence versus language is well-taken -- there have been more than a few instances over the last few years where a movie should have received an R rating for violence, but because of the absence of blood and gore (but not crunching bones, snapping necks or startling body counts), the movie was given the more box-office friendly PG-13. (One movie in particular, the astonishingly violent "Taken," starring Liam Neeson, springs immediately to mind.)
I'm not saying that all language should be allowed in all movies; there has to be some kind of limit. But it needs to be sensible. I don't agree with the idea that the ratings board should be ticking off the numbers of each particular swear word or using a hard-and-fast rubric to determine the tipping point when the movie has crossed from G to PG or PG-13 to R. Context and intent need to come into play as well.
And perhaps it did. I wonder if the ratings board watched "Bully" unfold and felt themselves shrinking in their seats at what was playing out in front of them, and rated the film as a protective measure. The repeated strong language was one thing, the real pain and anguish playing out in front of their eyes was another. Maybe they felt that it was too much to put before children who might be attending the film unaccompanied, and who wouldn't be able to separate themselves from the actions on the screen.
If that's the case, then it's a noble gesture, but it's also a mistake. Children are no better emotionally prepared to see robots/aliens/robotic aliens blasting projectiles which gorelessly pepper helpless human bodies (which is allowed in PG-13 movies) than they are to watch a kid (who might as well be someone from their own life) cruelly tease and torment another child (who might as well be them).
I have not seen "Bully," and before this debate began, I wondered if it was a film that I would be able to endure without reliving my own formative years. Now I know that when I have a chance, I will take the time to watch it, if only to try to understand why so many adults have such differing opinions about its suitability for youngsters.
This debate over strong language and how movies are rated because of it has been going on for quite some time. A couple of years ago, it was stirred up by "The King's Speech," which had been given an R rating, essentially, for too many uses of the "f-word."
It was also a Weinstein Company release; they fought the MPAA at that time to have the rating changed. They lost their appeal to the MPAA, so the film was released with the R rating. After the film became a success in the U.S. -- eventually winning the Best Picture Oscar and grossing more than $135 million -- the distributor elected to recut the movie to receive a PG-13. That version, with three of its "effs" muffled, pulled in just over $3 million, and the distributor faced some pretty harsh criticisms for essentially creating a cash-in version of a movie that didn't need one.
There are now rumors that the company is thinking of bleeping some of the language in "Bully" to earn the PG-13. I sincerely hope they don't, if for no other reason than to avoid having people discount their reasoning for releasing the movie to nothing more than a money-making ploy.