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Under fire, MPAA chief holds firm on R rating for ‘Bully’

By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times –

WASHINGTON — A battle over movie ratings escalated Thursday as filmmakers and lawmakers called on the Motion Picture Association of America to replace the R rating given to the teen-bullying documentary “Bully” with a less severe PG-13.

Hoping to defuse the controversy, MPAA chief Christopher J. Dodd held a screening and panel discussion at the group’s headquarters featuring the movie’s director, distributor and subjects. But the event turned into a forum for further criticism, with panelists and audience members charging that the MPAA was failing in its mission to guide parents and protect children.

“(People) believe in the system, but the system is letting them down,” director Lee Hirsch said, addressing Dodd. “We need leadership and your faith … to overturn” this ruling.

“Bully,” which will be released by the Weinstein Co. on March 30, centers on five families whose children have been bullied. The fly-on-the-wall documentary does not contain an abundance of explicit content; in one scene, however, one teen hurls harsh profanities at another child. That prompted the R rating, which means that moviegoers under age 17 must be accompanied by an adult. An appeal by the Weinstein Co. was denied.

As others at the panel discussion echoed Hirsch’s complaints, Dodd sought repeatedly to steer the conversation back to the issues raised by the film. “I don’t want (the ratings issue) to step all over what Lee crafted,” he said. But Hirsch volleyed back: “The R is stepping all over it; that’s the problem.”

In the last two weeks, grass-roots activists and the Weinstein publicity machine have gone into overdrive over the rating. As the company issued statements calling the R unfair, a Michigan teen who was a victim of bullying started an online petition to change the rating.

The petition came to the attention of Weinstein Co. chief Harvey Weinstein, who alerted celebrities such as Meryl Streep. The actress signed, as have Drew Brees, Ellen DeGeneres and Justin Bieber. The number of signees now exceeds 300,000.

The rating has touched off a debate about the practices of an industry trade group that self-polices its content, and prompted calls for more transparency and flexibility. “Why can’t it get a PG-13 with an ‘E’ for ‘Exception’ next to it?” Weinstein said in an interview before the panel. “There’s nothing stopping them from looking at this and doing something about it.”

Rep. Linda T. Sanchez, D-Calif., who is among more than two dozen lawmakers drafting a letter to Dodd asking for the decision to be overturned, said in an interview that she saw the rating as ironic.

“This is a movie that’s all about protecting kids, and the fact that they would offer a rating that won’t let kids see it seems really counterintuitive,” she said.

But the MPAA has held firm, saying that without a new edit of the film, there is no precedent or provision for reconsidering.

In an interview, Dodd said that even if there were such a provision, he couldn’t ignore a perceptual issue. “I’m stuck,” he said. “If we change the ruling in this case, I’ll have 10 other filmmakers lined up saying they shouldn’t be given the R. And who are we to say why this film should be different than the others?”

The MPAA says it does not consider the context or content of films but uses a set of standard criteria to determine ratings. As long as the profanity-laden scene remains, Dodd said, his hands were tied.

Weinstein and Hirsch have said they won’t edit the scene because doing so would dilute its effect, a position the film’s subjects have supported.

“Our reality is not censored,” Kelby Johnson, a teen who appears in the film, said at the panel. “Since when did curse words become more important than children’s lives?”


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