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.

Controversy, art, and “Fire in My Belly”

Over the two years this blog has been in existence, I’ve called out quite a fair number of people and organizations that have attempted censorship of the expressions of others. I believe very strongly in freedom of speech and freedom of the press as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the US Constitution (and as acknowledged in, for example, Article 19 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights). I also agree in principle with the stated mission and objectives of the Smithsonian Institution. I recognize the Smithsonian’s prestige, but I am not in the least intimidated by it.

Especially when the people in charge of the Smithsonian today do things like censoring the work of artist David Wojnarowicz, who has been deceased since 1992. More horrifying than the censorship was its motivation. Two Republican Congressmen (Eric Cantor and John Boehner) threatened to yank funding for the Smithsonian if the video “Fire in My Belly” was not censored. In the words of Rep. Cantor, the exhibit is an “outrageous use of taxpayer money and an obvious attempt to offend Christians during the Christmas season.”

I find this assertion abominable and a slap in the face at the intent of the First Amendment. Yes, some art is controversial, and there are pieces of art that may be offensive to certain groups or individuals. That’s hardly a reason to threaten to slash the budget of the Smithsonian like a ten-foot-tall growth of weeds, and Reps. Cantor and Boehner should be ashamed of themselves for such a heavy-handed action.

The good news is that the art community has stood up for the First Amendment. In particular, the Warhol Foundation has demanded the restoration of the exhibit under threat of a cessation of funding. Also of note, Jon O’Brien of Catholics for Choice published an open letter to Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough which states in part:

…your decision to censor David Wojnarowicz’s art has sullied the reputation of the National Portrait Gallery and does a disservice both to the arts community and the public. For artists, it suggests that in order to be considered by your gallery, their art may have to be uncontroversial. For the public, it suggests that what they see at the gallery may not be the full story, that exhibitions may be tailored so that they do not offend anybody. Neither scenario is positive.

Censorship of the arts is the last thing that an art institution should be doing. You have set a low standard for yourselves, and for your public. The National Portrait Gallery plays an important role in the cultural life of the city and the nation. Your decision sends the worst possible message to artists, to other cultural institutions and to the American people.

As commendable as both of these moves are, the management of the Smithsonian has yet to flinch. This censorship is every bit as bad as the grants Andres Serrano lost in the wake of Piss Christ, which some of my readers might even be too young to really remember. I just happened to be reading Time that month, or I would not have known about it either. Yes, I will admit there was a time I did not follow the art scene that closely. Apparently, the entire Piss Christ controversy has been long forgotten because it’s being repeated. As said by George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Or, if you prefer a more contemporary quote, there’s Yogi Berra’s “It’s deja vu all over again.”

Art made to be non-controversial to avoid censorship is much more likely to wind up boring. A nation with boring art is doomed to become a nation of boring people. My own life is boring enough some days; it’s nice to be able to go to an art gallery and see something interesting.

I want to see America stay interesting. I can’t be the only one.

Controversy, timing, hockey, personal branding, and publicity

Dan Schwabel (personalbrandingblog.com) recently wrote a piece on the story of two different reactions of hockey players passed over for their respective 2010 Winter Olympics national teams. My interest in this story comes from two interests of mine: professional hockey and marketing/PR. (Yes, I know it may come as a shock to some, but I do have an interest in both.)

Scott Gomez of the Montreal Canadiens, a former NHL All-Star, was passed over for the USA national team. Scott’s reaction was relatively mild-mannered and happy-go-lucky, acknowledging the realities that there are 23 roster slots but certainly more than 23 players that can be seen as qualified to fill those slots, a decision which is extremely subjective and certainly haunts some players passed over for years (probably the most notable example: Herb Brooks).

It is what it is. You get the call, you realize it, you move on and focus more on here. It wasn’t meant to be. Congratulations to the guys who made it. You just wish them the best of luck and hope the U.S.A. brings the gold.

Now, we move on to the reaction of Mikael Samuelsson, who played on the Swedish national team in 2006, and won a gold medal. Given this, it’s a bit more understandable his reaction isn’t exactly the stuff congeniality award winners are made of:

I pretty much have one comment and maybe I’ll regret it. But they can go [expletive] themselves. That’s what I really think. […] If [Swedish coach Bengt-Aake Gustafsson] doesn’t want me, he doesn’t want me.

There is a time for controversy. I think Mikael picked a really good time to be controversial. The gold medal he already has, of course, means Mikael has a little more room to get away with what he said, and in fact may well be the sports equivalent of a “get away with it card” in this case. (Scott has yet to win any Olympic medals, having only played for the USA national team once before in 2006.)

While I generally disapprove of indecorum, Mikael’s reaction will definitely get people talking about him and may have little effect on his real chances of making the Olympic team. That’s not to say Scott Gomez’s graceful reaction was the wrong one. Not all publicity is good publicity, and Scott’s choice was likely a good course of action for Scott in his circumstances. In the proper circumstances, publicity about controversy can be leveraged to work to one’s advantage.

Thoughts on Michael Jackson (1958-2009)

As you have undoubtedly heard by now, Michael Jackson passed away just a few hours ago (if you haven’t, CNN, MSNBC, Mashable are among those reporting).

Any child of the 1980s was influenced to some degree by Michael’s unique musical and dance style. Michael inspired a lifelong passion for music and dance for many.

I do believe it is extremely unfortunate that his legacy will be marred by controversy from child abuse allegations. I personally found it much more difficult to enjoy Michael’s music after the child sexual abuse controversies and legal actions (most notably the first one in 1993).

Today, in 2009, I think it’s time to set all that aside, and admire Michael Jackson for the great musician and dancer he was. Without him, pop music wouldn’t be what it was today (Justin Timberlake, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera come to mind). And let’s be honest here, even Elvis Presley was not without his share of controversy.

“It don’t matter if you’re black or white.” Indeed it does not.