Bully gets its PG-13 rating; dust still unsettled

April 8, 2012

By Michael Cieply of the New York Times

LOS ANGELES — Bully is now safe for viewers under 17. But is the movie ratings system safe from Harvey Weinstein?

On Thursday, an edited version of Bully, the anti-bullying documentary, was given a PG-13 label by the Classification and Rating Administration, clearing the film for wider release in theaters by the Weinstein Co. next Friday.

But the dispute between Weinstein and the National Association of Theater Owners, which helps set the rules for the ratings board, was still simmering on Friday. John Fithian, the president of the association, asserted that Weinstein had unwisely jeopardized a good system to generate publicity for his movie. Weinstein, in response, said Fithian harbors “Cro-Magnon” attitudes toward ratings.

The lingering tension may be inevitable given the depth of the public dispute that for weeks pitted Weinstein and his company against the ratings board.

The board had assigned Bully an R for harsh language, and stuck by its rating through a much-publicized appeal that attracted an outpouring of support online. The film was then released in a handful of theaters with no rating, and performed well, though viewers under 17 were generally permitted in only if accompanied by an adult, or, in some cases, with written permission from a parent or guardian.

This week, the Weinstein Co., the distributor of Bully, and Lee Hirsch, the director and a producer of the film, agreed to edit some, but not all, of the offending language from the film. The board quickly approved a less restrictive rating, and waived the normal 90-day waiting period during which re-rated films are typically held off the market, to distinguish them from earlier versions.

The tortured process brought attention to the film — much as earlier ratings tangles involving Weinstein put a spotlight on The King’s Speech, Miral, Blue Valentine, The Tillman Story, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno.

Asked in an interview on Friday whether the ratings system had been damaged by Weinstein’s repeated, and much-publicized, challenges, Fithian said, “Absolutely.”

Weinstein, he continued, “believes the ends always justify the means, and his ends here were to promote an important movie.” But, he added, “the type of attacks Harvey does, and he does them repeatedly, on Blue Valentine, on The King’s Speech, in the end, they could bring down the voluntary rating system.”

Under the current rating system, participating film companies and theater owners police themselves.

As recently as 1999, Fithian pointed out, Congress considered legislation that would have fined theater owners $10,000 every time they admitted an underage viewer to an R-rated film. Challenges for the sake of publicity, he said, threaten to bring legislators back into the mix.

“When controversy is manufactured to the extent that it has been, it is not healthy,” said Fithian, whose association works in partnership with the Motion Picture Association of America, which actually oversees the ratings board.

(In a memo that was sent to theater owners weeks ago, and subsequently obtained by The New York Times, Fithian said the Weinstein Co. had “chosen to generate public outcry about the ‘R’ rating in the successful effort to secure significant free media for the movie.”)

Weinstein, of course, shot back. “I am not being Harvey Weinstein, showman,” he said in a separate interview on Friday. “I am not using the ratings system for publicity. Yes, I’ve done it in the past. Mea culpa for that.”

But, he said of Bully, “this is completely out of passion.”

Weinstein acknowledged that his company had helped to build a groundswell of support that extended to endorsements from celebrities and members of Congress, and some 600,000 signatures on an online petition that sought a less-restrictive rating for Bully. But the original impulse, he contended, was not manufactured.

“The groundswell came to us,” he said.

Asked why he had not submitted an edited version with his original rating appeal, Weinstein said he had been privately told by the board that the film would not pass muster as PG-13 unless a crucial scene in which obscenities are hurled at a young victim on a school bus was changed — something he and Hirsch were unwilling to do.

In the end, he said, that scene remained intact, even as some strong language was cut, under what he called a “negotiated” settlement that was brokered by Christopher J. Dodd, the former U.S. senator who is now the chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America.

“Sen. Dodd stepped up and ended this,” Weinstein said. “It was a wonderful compromise. They saved face, and we won.”

Asked about the affair, Dodd was diplomatic. The ratings system, he said, is working well, even if it needs an occasional tweak. In the last few months, he noted, the association conducted a survey, which has not been released to the public, that showed approval levels of more than 70 percent for core aspects of the system, with its language strictures winning especially high scores.

Weinstein’s suggestion that ratings somehow be changed to a more qualitative, and flexible, system, he said, was almost surely unworkable. But he expressed doubt that Weinstein’s repeated challenges had hurt the board.

“Harvey’s a producer, a filmmaker and a film promoter,” he said. “Our job at the MPAA is to provide guidance to parents.”
Calling Weinstein a longtime friend, Dodd added, “I’m not going to sit in judgment on him.”

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