Harvey Weinstein's Bully sparks movie-rating row

Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein is protesting the R rating imposed in the U.S. on the documentary Bully, a film created to help expose the epidemic of bullying in U.S. schools.

R rating given to documentary film meant to provoke teen debate about school violence

Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein is protesting the R rating imposed in the U.S. on the documentary Bully, a film exposing the epidemic of bullying in U.S. schools.

The restricted rating means Bully could not be screened in U.S. middle and high schools, where it could be a tool to start discussions about physical, psychological and emotional violence, the Weinstein Co. says in a news release.

The film by documentary director Lee Hirsch was rated "R" by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) because it includes profanity in some schoolyard scenes in which students are shown tormenting others. An R-rated film means that those audience members under the age of 17 require a parent or adult guardian to accompany them.

Weinstein, one of Hollywood’s most powerful studio executives, appealed the MPAA rating and lost by a margin of one vote. He seeks a PG-13 rating so that younger viewers can see the film.

Pink Shirt Day against bullying

Feb. 29 is being celebrated as Pink Shirt Day, an effort to turn attention to anti-bullying campaigns.

Lady Gaga will kick off her Born This Way campaign on Wednesday, with Toronto teen and anti-bullying advocate Jacques St. Pierre among those joining her for the launch event at Harvard University.

After being turned down, he wrote to the National Association of Theatre Owners and threatened to release the film in March with no rating.

However, NATO, perhaps angry with Weinstein’s tendancy to grab the spotlight, wasn’t willing to negotiate. Association president John Fithian sent Weinstein a letter, dated Feb. 24, saying the group would urge its members to treat Bully as an NC-17 film if it is released unrated.

A rating of NC-17 typically ruins the box-office chances of a movie, as those no one under the age of 18 is permitted into cinemas to see it, even there is a parent or guardian present.

In Canada, movies are rated by provincial agencies and different standards apply. Bully screened last year at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival in Toronto under the title The Bully Project.

Portrait of bullying in schools

In Bully, Hirsch followed five bullied kids over the course of the 2009-2010 school year to examine exactly how pervasive bullying is in American schools. The film documents the responses of teachers and administrators to aggressive behaviour, including the oft-repeated mantra "Boys will be boys." Bully also looks at the efforts of parents and youth who want to change the bullying culture.

"I made Bully for kids to see — the bullies as well as the bullied.  We have to change hearts and minds in order to stop this epidemic, which has scarred countless lives and driven many children to suicide," Hirsh said in a statement. 

"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."

Alex Libby, one of the bullied children whose experiences are documented in the film, joined Weinstein in his appeal to the MPAA.

The MPAA ratings system has long been controversial. Critics note that films replete with violence, such as The Dark Knight, earn a PG-13 rating, while the period drama The King’s Speech initially earned a R rating because it includes some foul language.

Weinstein also appealed the MPAA rating given to The King’s Speech and the marital breakdown drama Blue Valentine — both movies that the Weinstein Co. was promoting during the run-up to the 2010 and 2011 Academy Awards.

In Canada, The King’s Speech received a PG-13 rating.