Rated U for "Useless"

Last week The Weinstein Company announced that it would release the documentary Bully unrated. Now I have not seen Bully yet, but by all accounts it does not show much sex. While it describes some violent acts, it does not show any brutality or gore. Yet the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rated the film R, meaning that no one under the age of 17 could see it in a theater without an adult present. The rating decision and its aftermath say little about Bully but speak volumes about the MPAA’s Classification and Ratings Administration.

Bully examines the epidemic of teen bullying and the devastating impact it can have on youth. It follows bullied kids and the families of other young bullying victims who committed suicide. One of the film’s subjects, Alex Libby, was so severely bullied that, in an effort to help him, the filmmakers decided to show the school administrators their footage. Bully has won consistent acclaim from critics, journalists, educators and policymakers. The consensus is that Bully could help raise awareness of the harm that comes from bullying as well as what people can do to stop it. Sounds great, right?

There’s just one catch. Bully, in showing the abuse that bullied kids face, has several uses of “bad” language, including the “f” word. For the MPAA, that in and of itself was enough to give Bully an R rating. Journalist Roger Friedman wrote that “I’ve watched Bully twice and still can’t figure out why it’s gotten an R rating. Except for the ‘f’ word uttered a couple of times, Bully is pretty plain stuff for the average junior high school kid.” If anyone thinks this is coming from the “liberal media,” think again. Friedman wrote those words for Forbes magazine and used to work for FOX News.

Lee Hirsch, director of Bully, and others involved with the film objected that the R rating would prevent many kids from seeing Bully. Hirsch explained that “I made Bully for kids to see - the bullies as well as the bullied. To capture the stark reality of bullying, we had to capture the way kids act and speak in their everyday lives - and the fact is that kids use profanity. It is heartbreaking that the MPAA, in adhering to a strict limit on certain words, would end up keeping this film from those who need to see it most.”

To the MPAA, the film’s value, or the context of the “bad” language, is irrelevant. One use of the “f” word is an automatic PG-13, while two or more is an automatic R. That’s it; end of story. The Weinstein Company, distributors of Bully, appealed the film’s rating to the MPAA. Hirsch made the case for the film, as did Alex Libby, who described how Bully could help him and others like him. It didn’t help. The appeal failed by a single vote and the R rating stood. Katy Butler, a 17-year-old high school student from Michigan who herself had endured bullying, started a nationwide petition drive to have the rating changed. Nearly 500,000 signed the petition, including Members of Congress (both Democratic and Republican), and celebrities such as Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Michael Jordan and Ellen DeGeneres. The petition didn’t help either, and again the rating stood.

The MPAA has pointed out that those under 17 will not be completely prevented from seeing Bully. Joan Graves, Chairman of the MPAA Classification and Rating Administration, said, “The voluntary ratings system enables parents to make an informed decision about what content they allow their children to see in movies. The R rating and description of ‘some language’ for Bully does not mean that children cannot see the film. As with any movie, parents will decide if they want their children to see Bully.” That may be true, but the R rating means more than parents deciding. It also means that the parent, or other adult, must come with the kid to see the film. When you were in high school, how often did you want to go to a movie theater with your parents? As Weinstein Company COO David Glasser explained, “If your parents take you or make you go [to the movie], it's like forcing a child to take medicine. But if a kid has the ability where he can go on his own, it becomes a movement.”

There’s another problem with what Graves said. She called the ratings system “voluntary,” which is technically true. However, most movie theater chains generally treat an unrated film as NC-17, meaning that no one under 17 can see it at all, even with an adult. Some chains won’t even screen unrated or NC-17 films. According to Entertainment Weekly, National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) president and CEO John Fithian has already informed The Weinstein Company that, should the studio release Bully unrated, the film may be treated like an NC-17 movie by many exhibitors. So, if I went to a businessman and said “There’s a system I want you to agree to. You don’t have to agree, but if you don’t, your business will drop by at least half,” how “voluntary” does that sound to you?

I’d like to learn more about the Bully rating decision. Too bad. The MPAA will not reveal who serves on their appeals board. It also seals the records of all appeal sessions. Kirby Dick, in his excellent documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, had to hire a private investigator to try to track down some MPAA film raters. This Film is Not Yet Rated illustrated that the MPAA is much tougher on sex and language than it is on violence. Many have pointed out the absurdity of The Hunger Games, which depicts teens killing each other, getting a PG-13, while Bully, which is trying to prevent acts of violence, gets an R.

This Film is Not Yet Rated also examined one the central truths of the MPAA, that it was created and funded by the Hollywood studios. The film repeatedly shows how the MPAA will go much easier on studio movies than independent ones with similar content. It’s easy to do this when those who rate the films and make the decisions are completely anonymous.

Nearly eleven years ago I wrote a column about the MPAA ratings system. Most of my points are still valid, except for one: “The MPAA can play a valuable role in helping parents and children make informed choices about what films to see.” I don’t believe that’s true anymore. What’s the value of the MPAA? Its chief, former Senator Christopher Dodd, said, “We had something like six appeals out of the more than 400 cases last year. That says we must be doing something right.” Maybe, or maybe that’s because the appeals system is so difficult, and success is so unlikely, that filmmakers believe an appeal simply isn’t worth it. After all, if a nationwide petition drive and a heartfelt appeal from a bullied kid didn’t work, what chance would someone else have?

Dodd also repeated the one tried and true MPAA defense – that parents support it. He cited a 2005 study that found that 76 percent of parents with children younger than 13 believed that the ratings were “useful” or “very useful.” Of course the MPAA commissioned that study, so we can take it with several tons of salt. It’s about as reliable as those studies showing widespread support for offshore drilling that were paid for by the American Petroleum Institute.

The MPAA was established in 1968, and for many years I’m sure that their ratings were useful. It was certainly much easier for parents to rely on the MPAA then to try to do their own research into a film’s content. But that’s not true anymore. A five minute Internet search can tell a parent how suitable a film is for their kids. A Google search under “Family Film Review” got 286 million results.

By my count, the MPAA has not made a significant change in their ratings policy since they introduced the PG-13 in 1984 (the introduction of NC-17 a few years later had no real impact). The problems I wrote about in 2001 have not gotten better, and likely have grown worse. Not only will the MPAA not change with the times, there is no reason for them to. They are not accountable to anyone but themselves. The dispute over Bully is the clearest signal that the MPAA’s rating system has outlived its usefulness. It’s time to start over.

The exact details of a new system would need to be fleshed out, but I believe it should adhere to five core principles:

1. Independence – The film raters cannot, even indirectly, be paid by Hollywood studios. We can only trust the ratings if we know that every film is on the same playing field.

2. Transparency – We will have more confidence in the raters if we actually know who they are.

3. Diversity – The raters should include not just parents but filmmakers, critics, educators and, yes, kids themselves.

4. Simplicity – Perhaps the one thing that the MPAA is still doing right is that their system is still easy to understand.

5. Accountability – This is the most important. Imagine how different the conversation might be if those on the MPAA appeals board had to publicly defend their votes. Those rating the movies need to be accountable not just to their superiors, but to the public that they serve. That’s the best way to detect and fix problems.

It would be easy to dismiss my suggestions as wishful thinking. The MPAA is still firmly entrenched. A former MPAA executive told the Los Angeles Times that “The MPAA’s problems are a little like herpes. They surface every once in a while and everyone notices them, but then it passes and everyone forgets about the problem.” But the Bully situation offers some signs of hope. Movie theaters don’t have to play along. The AMC theater chain just agreed to give Bully a wide distribution despite the non-rating. The theaters will permit kids to see it with adults or a permission slip from their parents. Instead of an MPAA rating, ads for Bully will carry a Pause 13+, from Common Sense Media, a non-profit organization that is not affiliated with any studio. The Parents Television Council (PTC), a conservative watchdog group, complained that AMC’s decision “sets a precedent that threatens to derail the entire ratings system. If a distribution company can simply decide to operate outside of the (MPAA) ratings system in a case like Bully, nothing would prevent future filmmakers from doing precisely the same thing.” Let’s hope the PTC is right.

Adam Spector
April 1, 2012

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