NEW YORK — Fresh off his Oscar glory with “The Artist,” there’s no silence for Harvey Weinstein when it comes to his next film.
The famously bellicose producer is protesting the R rating received by a documentary his Weinstein Co. is releasing. “Bully,” directed by Lee Hirsch, is an examination of school bullying that follows five kids and families over the course of a school year.
It received the rating, which restricts kids under the age of 17 from seeing it without an accompanying adult, because of six expletives. Weinstein claims such a rating restricts the very audience the film can most benefit: high school teens.
The Weinstein Co. appealed the decision, but the Motion Picture Association of America, which oversees movie ratings, declined to lower the rating to a PG-13.
“I find it outrageous,” says Weinstein, who has long been renowned for his combativeness. “This is, on a personal level because of my own temper, a redemptive act for me.”
“We’re hoping that smart people come to their senses,” he adds.
Weinstein has threatened to withdraw his future films from the MPAA rating system. But John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, has reminded him that such a tactic would result in theaters treating unrated films as NC-17 movies, which can kill a film’s artistic or commercial success.
“As a father of a 9-year-old child, I am personally grateful that (the Weinstein Co.) has addressed the important issue of bullying in such a powerful documentary,” Fithian wrote in a letter to Weinstein. “Yet were the MPAA and NATO to waive the ratings rules whenever we believed that a particular movie had merit, or was somehow more important than other movies, we would no longer be neutral parties applying consistent standards, but rather censors of content based on personal mores.”
That leaves the makers of “Bully” with the question of whether to edit or bleep the expletives, which are part of the antagonistic behavior documented between kids in the film. Right now, Hirsch is declining to do that, and has the backing of Weinstein. The director says such editing would minimize the harsh realities of bullying.
“To cut around it or bleep it out, it really absolutely does lessen the impact and takes away from what the honest moment was, and what a terrifying feeling it can be (to be bullied),” says Hirsch. “I feel a responsibility as a filmmaker, as the person entrusted to tell (these kids’) stories, to not water them down.”
Weinstein has feuded with the MPAA and NATO before, notably over the NC-17 rating of the 2010 drama “Blue Valentine” and the R given to the 2011 best picture winner “The King’s Speech” — which was recut and briefly released again in a PG-13 version.
Some believe Weinstein is using this ratings squabble to help promote “Bully” ahead of its March 23 release. “This is not publicity,” Weinstein counters. “This is ridiculous.”
He claims there is precedent for degrading a film’s rating when it serves a greater good. Though the 2004 documentary “Gunner Palace” contains dozens of expletives, its R rating was changed to PG-13 on appeal because of its worthy subject matter: the experiences and stories of American soldiers in Baghdad during the Iraq War.
Joan Graves, head of the Classification and Ratings Administration for the MPAA, calls that decision “an anomaly” made in “a different time and a different appeals board.” Graves says the lesson of that ruling was that the MPAA shouldn’t wade into territory where it’s deciding ratings based on merit and subject material.
“The danger of our switching our criteria for what we perceive to be good films is that, one day, you and I are not going to agree on what’s good and what’s bad,” says Graves, who added that she does consider “Bully” a good film. “Our system has always been built on giving the level of content and letting parents make the decision.”
Many are rallying behind a rating change for “Bully,” including American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten.
“Films like Lee Hirsch’s ‘Bully’ are critical in illustrating to students the painful consequences of bullying on their classmates and our communities,” Weingarten said in a statement. “Unfortunately, because of the film’s R rating, students will be shut out and discouraged from viewing this film. By giving it a PG-13 rating, the MPAA can take a stand against bullying and ensure this powerful film reaches children across the country.”
Katy Butler, a 17-year-old Michigan high school student, has gotten more than 185,000 signatures for an online petition to change the rating.
Of course, an R rating doesn’t prohibit young people from seeing “Bully,” it just means they can’t attend on their own. Weinstein, who has four daughters, calls having to see a film with your parents a “kiss of death” for the experience.
“I want to sell ‘Bully’ like it’s cool to see the movie,” says the producer. “And then I want these kids to walk out of the movie theater and say, ‘Wait, this is wrong.’ … When your children make the decision, it’s so much stronger.”