Who’s the real “Bully” here?

This particular story has been developing for quite some time before my blog post. So rather than weigh in after just one story, I will link to several:

This should not, however, be considered an all-inclusive timeline, because to fully understand the controversy surrounding “Bully” requires a look at how we even got the present day movie ratings to begin with. We’ll get there.

The documentary film “Bully” is about, well, bullying in schools. The first EW.com story above says it best:

It’s a tricky catch-22: How do you make an honest movie about the epidemic of adolescent bullying and not have it land an “R” rating?

And it begs the question: whose fault is it that one can’t make a movie about what goes on in schools that kids need to see, without risking the wrath of the MPAA ratings board in the form of an “R” rating (or even an “NC-17” rating)? The easy answer is to blame the schoolkids for using that kind of language in school (and I understand that teachers and faculty shouldn’t tolerate it, but at the same time they can’t be everywhere and hear everything all the time). The more difficult, but possibly more correct, answer is to blame the MPAA’s no-nonsense hard limits on certain swear words, at or above which the “R” rating becomes automatic.

For those of you unfamiliar with the MPAA’s rating system (which would include most of my readers outside the US and Canada), this is a summary of the MPAA’s official guide:

  • “G”: General Audiences. Children of all ages can see these films alone, no questions asked. Minimal violence, no profanity, no drug use, no sex or nudity. Most “G” rated feature films are intended for children, though the “G” rating by itself does not signify this.
  • “PG”: Parental Guidance Suggested. Most theaters will still allow unaccompanied children into these films. There may be some profanity, violence and/or brief nudity, but nothing intense. (Any drug use will also disqualify a film from a possible “PG” rating; “Whale Rider” got a “PG-13” for a brief shot of drug paraphernalia.)
  • “PG-13”: Parents Strongly Cautioned. We’re still not at the point where theaters will deny admission to unaccompanied children. One of the harsher expletives or any drug use are an automatic “PG-13” rating. Usually, two or more of the harsher expletives, or one such utterance in a sexual context, will result in an “R” rating (see below). The “PG-13” rating came about because the existing categories of “PG” and “R” were too broad and was actually suggested by Steven Spielberg, who in 1984 directed “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” and produced “Gremlins”, both of which were controversial because of their “PG” rating.
  • “R”: Restricted. Now, we’re getting into films made primarily for adults. Most theaters will check identification and deny admission to children under 17 for an “R” rated film. To quote the MPAA: “Generally, it is not appropriate for parents to bring their young children with them to R-rated motion pictures.”
  • “NC-17”: No One 17 and Under Admitted. This replaced the original “X” rating in 1990 (“X” had long since been taken over by, and is now nearly synonymous with, pornographic films). These films are, in the judgment of the MPAA ratings board, made for viewing by adults and appropriate only for viewing by adults. Most theaters will not screen an “NC-17” rated film. Most video rental chains will not stock titles rated “NC-17”. Again quoting the MPAA: “NC-17 does not mean ‘obscene’ or ‘pornographic’ in the common or legal meaning of those words, and should not be construed as a negative judgment in any sense. The rating simply signals that the content is appropriate only for an adult audience.” Nevertheless, many movie producers consider an “NC-17” rating a “commercial death sentence” for the reasons mentioned before.

How did we get here? The gory details are at Wikipedia’s article on the MPAA film rating system. The system grew out of the original Production Code, commonly called the Hays Code after Will H. Hays, Hollywood’s chief censor. The first MPAA film “rating” was actually not G, PG, R, or even M or X; it was “SMA” for “Suggested for Mature Audiences” toward the end of the Production Code era.

The MPAA ratings system is labeled a “voluntary” system. Technically, this is the case. No motion picture producer is required to seek an MPAA rating to release their completed work. But take the example of “Kids”, a 1995 drama film where all of the major characters are no older than 17. It was rated NC-17 by the MPAA, but later released unrated; Harvey and Bob Weinstein were forced to buy back the film from Disney, releasing the film under a one-off company Shining Excalibur Films, since Disney’s policy forbade the release of an NC-17 film. (And yes, these are the same Weinsteins who own the distributors of “Bully” today.)

Did kids of the 1990s really need to see “Kids” as much as today’s kids need to see “Bully”? Probably not. Are there kids who could benefit from seeing “Kids”? Probably. Are there kids who will not get to see “Kids” until they become adults because of the NC-17 rating the film originally received? Most definitely, and I feel this is evidence of how broken the MPAA’s rating system has been and continues to be.

To quote the fifth EW.com story above:

TWC had mounted an aggressive effort to persuade the MPAA to reverse its initial ratings verdict. Nearly half a million people signed a petition from Katy Butler, Michigan high school student and former bullying victim, on Change.org to urge the MPAA to lower the rating. “The kids and families in this film are true heroes, and we believe theater owners everywhere will step up and do what’s right for the benefit of all of the children out there who have been bullied or may have otherwise become bullies themselves,” said TWC president of marketing Stephen Bruno. “We’re working to do everything we can to make this film available to as many parents, teachers and students across the country.”

Despite all the outrage, all the petitions, and a member of Congress getting into the act, the MPAA hasn’t budged. “Bully” is still, according to the MPAA ratings board, rated “R”. Most high schools and middle schools will not show an “R” rated film for liability reasons. So in effect, the MPAA rating would keep the film from being seen by adolescent students, the ones for whom the film is intended to benefit. Adults don’t really need to see this film, and it’s not aimed at them.

Fortunately, at least some theaters are showing some common sense. AMC is allowing parental permission slips for their children to go see “Bully” unaccompanied, and Regal is treating the film as any other “R” rated film (unfortunate in a way, but at least it is in their theaters). This quote of a quote from the last of the EW.com stories is quite revealing (and refers to AMC’s move regarding the permission slips):

“This move, regardless of intentions, sets a precedent that threatens to derail the entire ratings system,” said PTC head Tim Winter in a statement. “If a distribution company can simply decide to operate outside of the ratings system in a case like Bully, nothing would prevent future filmmakers from doing precisely the same thing, with potentially much more problematic material.”

Mr. Winter says this like the MPAA’s rating system imploding upon itself is a bad thing. I think AMC is doing the right thing here. Even more interesting is that TWC will be using the “Pause 13+” rating given by commonsense.org. (As I understand it, the “Pause 13+” rating is an acknowledgment that the film is aimed at those 13 and older but has content some parents may consider inappropriate for that age.)

I don’t think commonsense.org’s ratings system is perfect, but in this case “Pause 13+” says a lot more than “R” ever could. Maybe it’s time for a few more filmmakers and theater chains to do things that “[threaten] to dreail the entire [MPAA] ratings system.” At the very least, this latest controversy over a film’s rating means it is time for MPAA to get out of the film ratings business and leave it to another organization to either overhaul the ratings system to fulfill its original goal of giving parents concise information, or devise an entirely new one.

It smacks of conflict of interest for the trade association to be slapping ratings on films. Especially given that of the one of which can effectively end a film’s commercial life, and at least one other which is often misleading and which merely says “may not be appropriate for under 17” without acknowledging that 13- to 16-year olds are probably those who most need to see it.

What also really worries me, is the MPAA’s huge cloud of secrecy about its ratings board and their decisions. The people on the ratings board have joint control of what is, figuratively, a loaded gun that they can point at a movie and (commercially) kill. The end of the film “This Film Is Not Yet Rated” should show the MPAA ratings appeal process, from the point of view of the producer. Unfortunately, all we get are descriptions, and re-enactments of the phone call from “someone at the MPAA” detailing the secrecy of these proceedings.

I am undecided as to whether or not secrecy is a symptom of another problem, or part of the problem itself. But I do know you can’t have full accountability with this level of secrecy.