Thursday, April 5, 2012

'Bully'ing the MPAA

I am an ardent supporter of the MPAA rating system, mostly for three reasons. First, I'm older than 17 and capable of independent thought, so the ratings system doesn't really effect me in any way. Second, I've have enough experience with the system to actually use the guidelines in informing my movie choices. And thirdly, because someone has to be.

The big "R" is back in the headlines once again because of the documentary "Bully" which, because of language, requires someone younger than 17 to be accompanied by an adult in order to view the film -- there's talk of releasing the film as "unrated" which would eliminate that requirement but also limit the number of theaters that carry the film.

For the uninitiated, generally speaking a movie can get away with one F-bomb and still secure a rating of PG-13 (two if neither are used in a sexual connotation). Meanwhile, PG-13 movies can have a fair amount of nudity (i.e. Titanic), violence (i.e. Lord of the Rings) and sappy melodramatic nonsense (i.e. anything starring Katherine Heigl).

A whole stink has been made about Bully's "R" rating, with advocates saying that it limits the amount of teenagers -- who would otherwise benefit from seeing the gritty realism of bullying in schools -- that will be able to see the movie. The Weinstein Company hired the prop 8 lawyers to appeal the rating to the MPAA and I've read that it came within one vote of the 2/3 majority necessary to overturn the "R". Similar petitions have also been launched by anti-bullying advocacy groups, lobbyists, and concerned would-be viewers.

It is, by my perspective, nothing but smoke and mirrors and much ado about nothing.

First off, no "R" rating is going to stop a kid from seeing a movie they want to see. Theater security is nonexistent and as any 15-year-old will tell you, once you buy a ticket to see "The Lorax" you have free reign to see just about anything you want to. The big "R" didn't keep me out of Blade 2 and The Matrix when I was a kid. Anyone, and I repeat anyone, who wants to see Bully in theaters will find away.

Secondly (and more importantly) how many teenage kids are really dying to see a documentary about bullying? Scratch that, how many teenage kids are dying to see ANY documentary? Teenagers want to see the 3D Jonas Brothers Concert movie and the umpteenth Transformers sequel. They do NOT want to pay to see a 2-hour education piece about how they should be nicer to the nerds at school. I'm the first one to advocate that EVERYONE should watch more documentaries, but it's not a fluke that Avatar makes a billion dollars while Waiting For Superman slowly trickles across the country in art-house theaters.

That leads to my third point. Since no one watches docs and the rating won't stop anyone that does, why all the fuss? TWC makes a good point that the R rating stops the film from being shown in schools (for example) and other educational settings, but all the rallies and protest boil down to one big grin on Harvey's face: Free Publicity.

TWC knows that even though hundreds of Docs are made each year, only a handful gain name recognition -- Super Size Me, The Cove, Bowling For Columbine, Man on Wire, etc. The "alleged" viewership loss ascribed to the dreaded "R" is dwarfed in comparison to the hundreds -- if not thousands -- of movie-goers that will buy a ticket to Bully due to the simple fact that they've heard so much about it. This isn't a crusade, it's a hedge bet.

What is easier, after all? Spending 20 million dollars on a multi-platform advertising campaign or hiring two lawyers to spend one day arguing before a jury of conservative movie-raters? The petitions by lay-people is just delicious gravy.

All bully would have to do to secure a PG-13 is beep out a couple of F-bombs. That's it. Six or Seven beeps and children of every age would be able to watch Bully in just about any setting. Does it compromise the integrity of the film's storytelling? Absolutely not. The fact of the matter is that the filmmakers care more about making a fuss about the system and ganing notoriety than actually presenting the film in a format that would be acceptable to the common denominator. Is that censorship? No, because they have every right to release their F-Bomb dropping R-Rated movie and hope enough kids sneak in for a double-header after Mirror Mirror.

Could the rating system be improved? Arguable. Does it succeed in differentiating between movies to inform, but not dictate, a customers viewing choices? Yes. If you want to go see Bully, go see bully. If you think a few F-Bombs is less objectionable than the stylized violence and sex in PG-13 films than don't see the PG-13 action-sex blockbuster and take your kids to the artsy R-rated doc instead. The rating doesn't change the content, just the color of the wrapping paper.

*UPDATE: The Weinstein Company announced Friday that an edite, PG-13 rated version of the film will be released nationwide on April 13.

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