When it comes to staging a PR campaign, no one can hold a candle to Harvey Weinstein, who makes P.T. Barnum look like a taciturn Buddhist monk. Weinstein cannily beat the drums for The Artist, leading to an Academy Award for best picture and several other Oscars, and within days, he had set out on a new publicity blitz, this one for the release of the documentary Bully.
Weinstein’s hype for Bully is a classic from his playbook. It centers on the R rating that the Motion Picture Association of America gave the film, which is about the epidemic of bullying in American middle schools that has resulted in widespread psychic trauma and, in some instances, suicide.
Through the years, Weinstein has used or manufactured ratings controversies to buy free press for many movies, from the recent Blue Valentine all the way back to a 1990 lawsuit against the MPAA for giving an X rating to Pedro Almodovar’s Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! (which led to the institution of the NC-17 rating). So when I heard about this one, I initially felt Weinstein was just crying wolf yet again.
If you haven’t been following, here’s what’s been happening, in a nutshell: The MPAA’s rating board gave Bully an R rating solely because several kids are overheard using the F-word in the film. Weinstein believes the film should get a PG-13, which would allow teens to see the movie even without a parent or guardian. He appealed the rating, but was denied.
Weinstein was so upset that he claimed he was considering taking a “leave of absence” from submitting his films to the MPAA for ratings. That earned a fresh wave of publicity for the film, as well as a stern rebuke from John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, who informed Weinstein in a letter — one that Weinstein promptly publicized — that if Weinstein released his films unrated, theater owners would treat them as NC-17 rated films, meaning no minors allowed, even with parents or guardians.
At first, I was willing to side with Joan Graves, the MPAA ratings board chief, who told me last week that Weinstein knew the rules going in. If Weinstein wanted a PG-13, he could easily cut Bully’s bad language, as he did last year when he wanted to reach a broader audience — and make more money — with his 2011 Oscar winner, The King’s Speech. That film was initially rated R solely for language issues; Weinstein later cut the F-words and re-released the movie with a PG-13 rating, even going against the wishes of his own filmmakers.
But when I got Weinstein on the phone, he had a new ace up his sleeve: Gunner Palace, a riveting 2005 documentary about an artillery squad’s wartime experiences in Iraq. The Palm Pictures film featured 42 examples of the F-word, 36 more than in Bully, but the MPAA, after hearing an appeal, agreed to give the film a PG-13 rating. Weinstein immediately pounced on the inconsistency.
“The board said they gave the film a PG-13 because there was a war going on and it was important for young people to see the film,” he told me. “But they set a precedent. I complimented them on the decision to give it a PG-13, but I said that there’s another war going on in America’s schools with bullying. So you have to think of the two movies in the same way.”
When I asked Graves about why the board was willing to overturn its rating decision for one movie and not for another, she argued that what happened in 2005 didn’t necessarily apply in 2012.
The board’s ratings decisions are often an embarrassment, especially when it comes to language issues. With sex or violence, the ratings board has broad, often indecipherable leeway in deciding an R rating. But with language, no flexibility exists: If you have more than one F-word, you get an R. Why is one F-word OK, but not two?
Hearing a nasty bully shout obscenities at a timid 14-year-old in a documentary designed to raise our awareness about bullying is just not in the same ballpark as hearing a drunken partygoer bellow F-bombs in a bratty teen comedy. One alerts and educates us; the other titillates and, perhaps, entertains us.
But there’s a difference. And it’s long overdue for the MPAA’s rating board to figure out that when it comes to judging the effect of language in movies, not every F-bomb sounds alike.