Tuesday, March 27, 2012

What Bully’s Unrated Rating Means

Moments after news broke yesterday that The Weinstein Company would be releasing its new documentary Bully as unrated, I began Tweeting my ecstatic praise of the studio’s decision. And within seconds, many of my foreign followers began asking 1.) What does “unrated” mean, and 2.) Why is this a good thing. And that’s when I realized that people in different countries may not have the slightest clue what America’s movie rating system is, or the monumental effect it can have on a film. I am in no way familiar with any other rating system around the world, so why should foreigners be familiar with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA)?

Articles about the significance of Bully’s non-rating are a dime a dozen right now, but in this post, I want to describe what “unrated” means, why it is important and why the MPAA is as bad as you’ve heard.

The System
The MPAA ratings system works like this:

G: Anyone can see it.
PG: Some parental guidance is suggested, but, really, anyone can see it.
PG-13: Some material may be inappropriate for kids under age 13 (basically, you can see a lot of violence, some consensual, missionary sex, and one use of the word "fuck").
R: If you’re under 17, you must be accompanied by a guardian to see the film.
NC-17: No one under 17 can see the film. Period.
Unrated: The film has no affiliation with the MPAA.

Bully’s Fight
When a film is finished, the director and the producing studio submit it to the MPAA so it can be issued a rating. As is most often the case, the MPAA watches the film, gives it a rating, and the film is released in theaters a few months later. On occasion, a film is given a rating it feels it does not deserve, in which case the filmmakers can do three things: re-edit the film to get the rating they want, appeal the MPAA’s decision, or stick with the rating they have.

The producer of Bully, Harvey Weinstein, who is, arguably, the most powerful man in Hollywood, didn’t agree with Bully’s R rating. Bully was rated R because the word “fuck” is said six times. That’s all. There is no blood, no sex, and no gruesome violence. Weinstein and Lee Hirsch, the film’s director, did not think mild language like this (and let’s be honest, six “fucks” is very mild language, given the subject matter), warrants an R rating. They want as many kids to see the film as possible, so they appealed the rating. And they had quite a net of support.

Nearly half a million people (including myself) signed an online petition asking the MPAA to consider rating Bully PG-13. And, I suspect, hardly anyone who signed that petition has seen the movie (I myself have not), but that isn’t the point. The point is that bullying is a very serious issue right now, and if the film is PG-13, then most any child could see it without parental supervision. Filmmakers, celebrities, and politicians all fell in line to support the cause, but the MPAA did not relent, ultimately slapping the film with an R rating.

And that’s usually the end of it. But when you’re facing a guy who has as big of an ego as Harvey Weinstein, then you can expect some serious action, which is exactly what we have here.
Harvey Weinstein

The Unrated Rating
Earlier I said a movie has three options when it is given a rating it feels is unjust: re-edit, appeal, or concede. But what we saw yesterday represents a fourth, barely-practiced option: completely disregarding the MPAA’s rating and releasing it in movie theaters as “unrated.”

Now, most of the questions I received on Twitter yesterday asked why more films don’t do this. If a movie doesn’t want to deal with the bureaucracy of the MPAA, why not simply release it as unrated? And the answer is simple: if a movie is unrated, then it is as ignored as a movie that is rated NC-17. This means: no TV spots, no movie trailers (shown in theaters) and no large distribution. Major movie theater chains like Regal and AMC won’t show unrated films (or NC-17 films), so, basically, if you want to see Bully in the movie theater, you’ll have to go to an independently-owned theater, or wait until DVD.

(Note: many trailers and TV spots end with the disclaimer that “This Film is Not Yet Rated,” which means it is under review by the MPAA. But once a film is officially unrated, its trailer is not shown in mainstream movie theaters, and its TV spots are not shown on television.)

Does Weinstein’s decision to have Bully be unrated hinder its audience? Of course it does, but by taking a stand, Weinstein could very well encourage other filmmakers and producers to ignore the MPAA’s rating. And if that keeps happening, movie theater chains may (and I say “may” with great caution) start showing unrated films, which means filmmaker’s wouldn’t be forced to re-edit their vision so often.

In short, Bully’s unrated rating is a progressive step to reminding everyone how absurd the MPAA is. Hearing a few middle schoolers use the word “fuck” six times is in no way worse than watching an innocent, 9-year-old black girl be speared to death for television ratings, or watching an 11-year-old boy anally rape another 11-year-old boy, which brings me to my final point.

Why the Rating’s System Fails
Okay, where to begin. First off, rarely do I take issue with the final result of an NC-17-rated movie. Shame, Crash (Cronenberg’s film), Lust, Caution, Bad Lieutenant (Ferrara’s film), are all NC-17 films I love, and they’re all films that deserve their rating. Usually films that are slapped with an NC-17 go through a re-edit to earn the R, and, usually, those films release unrated versions on DVD, as a means of restoring what they had to cut out of the theatrical release. Notable instances of this include: American Psycho, Eyes Wide Shut, Requiem for a Dream, Bad Santa, and on and on.
Other films, like Shame, say fuck it and are released theatrically as NC-17. Their box office take is limited, the amount of award nominations it receives is sparse-to-nonexistent, and (maybe) it has a hope of finding a life on DVD.

Where I take issue is in the very hazy line that occurs between what constitutes a PG-13 and R-rated film.

A few generally accepted (but mostly unwritten) guidelines: if your film has “fuck” more than once, it is automatically R. If your film has any nudity or mildly intense sex, it is automatically R. If your film has a shitload of violence, it can usually get away with a PG-13.

Now, of course there are exceptions. Titanic shows Kate Winslet’s breasts but, because it shows nudity in an artistic way, and because it had the potential to become the most successful movie of all time (which it did), the MPAA gave it a PG-13 rating. Fair enough. Let’s dig deeper.
Marc Forster’s The Kite Runner contains a graphic, brutal scene in which an 11-year-old male bully rapes an 11-year-old male schoolmate on screen. Yet it is PG-13. The Hunger Games contains many death scenes in which teen, or pre-teen, children are killed by other teens for heightened television ratings. Necks are snapped, chests are impaled, and the crowd goes wild. Yet it is PG-13. The King’s Speech has roughly 10 instances of the word “fuck” in two very brief scenes, yet it is rated R. The “fucks” in The King’s Speech are in no way sexually derogatory, and are in no way offensive, they are merely blurted out in moments of frustration. Now, I’ve never known anyone who has raped and/or killed, but I know a hell of a lot of people who have said fuck out of frustration. So this is where I see a disconnect. (For the record, The Kite Runner was not a fiscally successful film, but, regardless, its rating still baffles me. Also, The King’s Speech is a movie I have never liked, but, similarly, its rating baffles me.)

The MPAA is a very secret organization. The names, ages, and genders of its members are kept anonymous, but, according to Kirby Dick’s excellent documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated (which is currently available on Netflix Instant), the MPAA, in 2005, was comprised of 10 people, the youngest of which was 45. And, to summarize this very lengthy argument, it is simply unfair how much power 10 people have over the entire movie industry. Independent films so often have to fight to make a buck while limiting the filmmaker’s vision. For example, does the sex in Blue Valentine (which is completely consensual) merit an NC-17 rating over the realistic, devastating violence of say, Saving Private Ryan? You tell me.
Is a school bully saying the word “fuck” six times worse than watching the liquidation of a ghetto by Nazi’s? I certainly don’t think so.

When you talk American movie ratings, you’re talking semantics, and unfair ones at that. The impact of The Weinstein Company’s decision to release Bully unrated is yet to be seen, but mark my words: if more studios and filmmakers follow suit, we could start seeing the quality of film’s drastically improving. It worked in 1968, and I don’t see any reason why it can’t work now.


  1. There's that documentary that looks into this topic, This film is not yet rated, which explains how broken the MPAA is. Hopefully this has the power to shake things up a little. Foul language should not keep this film away from children when it's okay to show them epic amounts of violence.

  2. @Max Yeah I actually mentioned that doc in my article. This is Not Yet Rated is a really good movie, and people interested in this topic should definitely check it out. Thanks for reading!

  3. Amazing article! I think MPAA is a freaky organization, the fact how many violent movies get pg-13 but got forbid there is a consentual sex scene and bang! it's R-rated. I just fear for Prometheus, for opposite reason - I hope Scott didn't compromize and cut out a bunch of movie just to get PG-13 and earn more money. On the other hand it does seem more violent than sexual, so with how things are in MPAA today maybe he can just submit the movie as it as and still get PG-13. It's ridiculous violence in films gets lighter treatment than sex.

  4. @Sati. I agree with you, I really hope Ridley doesn't sacrifice Prometheus to earn a PG-13 rating. My initial gut reaction is that he would never cut his flick for more money, but, given that's EXACTLY what he did with Robin Hood, I'm a little weary.

    We shall see.

  5. I'm not a fan of the MPAA either. It's really just a group of people with a lot of moral judgements that don't really understand the art of film.

  6. Wow, the MPAA sounds completely ridiculous. So is our rating system really, and it's about to get an overhaul apparently (for instance, R for us means no one under 18 is allowed to see it in theatres. Our MA15+ is the equivalent to your R). Really great article! Good on Weinstein!

  7. Great post. This is beside the point but maybe Weinstein should have taken five fucks out of the movie and settled with a PG-13?

  8. @Alex Withrow Also with Kingdom of Heaven. Eva Green's performance was basically raped with theathrical cut comparing to what it was in director's cut.

  9. @Ruth Thanks! Yeah it's funny, because Weinstein himself is considered a huge bully (pun intended) within the movies industry, but he's really calmed down recently and chosen nobel battles, in my opinion.

    I'd be interested to know more about other country's ratings systems. But there are so many.

  10. @Robert Thanks brother. Actually, I think your question is perfectly fair, and it is one that MANY people, including the MPAA, proposed. Weinstein and Hirsch's argument is that the foul language adds to the bullying environment that is depicted in the film, and to cut or bleep the fucks out would not only be censorship, but it'd take away from the trauma.

    Weinstein had the same battle with The King's Speech. The MPAA said take out the fucks, and you'll get your PG-13. To which Weinstein replied, I suspect, by saying "fuck yourselves."

  11. @Sati. Exactly. I saw that movie in the theater and thought it was garbage. A friend convinced me to watch the Director's Cut and I was amazed.

    I guess we shouldn't be too surprised, Scott did pioneer the Director's Cut via Blade Runner.

  12. This is one of the best things I've ever read on this site. I agree with everything you said. Very well done. You should send this to someone involved with Bully (email or Tweet it), because I think they'd value the light you're shedding on it.

  13. @John Thanks so much for your kind words. I'm glad so many people are able to understand how reductive an organization like the MPAA can be.

    Maybe I will Tweet to them, couldn't hurt, right?

  14. Fucking brilliant article. One of the best I've read on the subject. Words are powerful Alex, and what you've written is important. Great post. I'll definitely be passing it on.

  15. @Tyler Wow, thanks so much, Tyler. This is an issue I'm definitely passionate about, so I'm glad a fraction of my passion was able to translate clearly in print.

    And, getting compliments from a writer I admire as much as you ain't half bad either.

    Thanks again!

  16. Thank you so much!! When I heard it was unrated I wasn't sure how I felt about it simply because I wasn't sure if any parents would take their child to see an unrated film...but after reading this I think there is hope!! I will definitely be seeing this movie in a theater!! Hopefully this movie can inspire some desperately needed change in how our society responds to bully!!

  17. @"C" This may be the first time I've ever been thanked for writing a blog article, and I am unspeakably humbled by your kind words.

    Thank YOU for reading this and being such an active proponent against school bullying. Regal and AMC cinemas have said that they will be screening Bully, and although they will be screening it as R-rated, hopefully a wider audience will be able to see it.

    Thanks again, Cassie!

  18. I don't know the exact percentages, but re-edit and concede are the most common choices. Appeals are rare, because winning an appeal is unlikely. It's almost a non-option.

    1. Exactly, and that's nonsense. Soderbergh did it with Solaris, but yeah, it's very are.