The Motion Picture Association of America declared the documentary about bullying in schools inappropriate for kids due to a scene in the film where a child shouts a slew of f-bombs at a fellow student on a school bus. The Weinstein Company tried to appeal the rating, but was denied by one vote.
“The small amount of language in the film that’s responsible for the R rating is there because it’s real,” director Lee Hirsch told “Entertainment Weekly.” “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.”
The recent controversy highlights the difficulties MPAA and filmmakers face when agreeing on ratings, while also questioning the legitimacy of the rating system.
“For (‘Bully’) to be rated so harshly and in turn preventing it from being seen by the audience it was intended for, is wrong," said actor Andrew Williams. "They need to go back to the drawing board if they want to continue to use the same system."
Others feel the MPAA doesn’t understand the fundamentals of making a movie.
"The MPAA aren't actors themselves," said actor Andrew Casanova of "The Actor's Project" in New York City. "They just sit behind a desk and make decisions because they got that job. I feel like they can be biased and their ratings can be subjective."
“Our ratings reflect how we believe a majority of American parents, not just from large cities on the coasts but everywhere in between, would rate a film,” said head of the ratings board Joan Graves last year on Filmratings.com after “The King’s Speech” was re-rated from R to PG-13. “It’s a responsibility we take very seriously.”
As a struggling actor, Casanova will go wherever the paid gigs lead him but draws the line for taking on a role at an NC-17 rating.
"If you're okay with it morally, because I know plenty of actors who won't do a scene if it contains language or violence, I think it makes you more acceptable as an actor," he said. "When you read a script you know, more or less, which way the movie is going to go."
Although "Bully" is a documentary and had no script, the MPAA feel the rating due to language wouldn't necessarily limit "Bully's" audience. However, Michigan high school student Katy Butler strongly disagreed with the information provided to parents by the organization and began a petition on Change.org to bring the rating down to PG-13 that garnered nearly half a million signatures and gained support from Hollywood A-listers, such as Ellen DeGeneres, who spoke about the issue on her show, recent Oscar-winner Meryl Streep, and Johnny Depp. AMC CEO Gerry Lopez also signed the petition and declared the movie would be screened at all AMC theaters despite the "unrated" label.
The MPAA fully supports Weinstein's decision to release the movie unrated, according to
representative Kate Bedingfield. “[The ratings are] not intended to pass judgment on a film or to be punitive,” she said. “It simply allows parents to be aware of the content of films so they can make informed decisions.”
TWC’s relentless pursuit for a rating appeal from the MPAA has moved several other filmmakers to attempt the same. A less strict rating generally means a film has a wider audience. Both “Sea Level,” an action adventure flick, and crime drama “Killer Joe” tried unsuccessfully to have their ratings changed -- “Sea Level” to a G from PG and “Killer Joe” from NC-17 to R.
Lionsgate’s upcoming film “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” based on the novel by Stephen Chbosky, successfully received a ratings change. “Perks” was brought down to PG-13 from R. Logan Lerman (“Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief”) and Emma Watson (“Harry Potter”) will star in the project.
Independent filmmaker Sebastian Rea feels big blockbuster studios are the ones most concerned with the MPAA and their ratings. "They're the ones who care how many people can see it on opening weekend," he said.
Last weekend’s box office hit “Hunger Games” can fall into the gray area of what should be deemed kid friendly. A film about adolescents picking each other off in a gladiator-esque arena isn’t exactly child’s play, and director Gary Ross was wary about concern for young viewers from the beginning.
“It’s not going to be an R-rated movie because I want the 12- and 13- and 14-year-old-fans to be able to go see it,” Ross told “Entertainment Weekly” in 2011. "This book means too much to too many teenagers for it not to be PG-13. It’s their story and they deserve to be able to access it completely.”