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 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.
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.
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.