By Steve Pond
LOS ANGELES (TheWrap.com) - "Bully," the Weinstein Co. documentary that has made about $250,000 at the box office and stirred up weeks of controversy as it fought the R rating handed down by the Motion Picture Association of America, is this year's cinematic cause célèbre.
But as a case study, "Bully" might not have the lasting impact its supporters hope.
The controversy drew an enormous amount of attention to a film that deserves to be widely seen. But is "Bully" a great movie? Can it really help launch an uprising that will put an end to something that has been going on for as long as kids have been going to school? And will it have any real impact on the ratings board or the MPAA?
In the end, the film hasn't shaken the ratings system, hasn't broken through at the box office and will set no precedents at the MPAA.
The big controversy, in the end, may be a case of much ado about not enough.
An undeniably powerful look at the abuse endured by a handful of schoolchildren at the hands of aggressive classmates, "Bully" was rated R for a half-dozen uses of the F-word by school bullies. The Lee Hirsch-directed film, which was titled "The Bully Project" when it debuted at Tribeca last year, lost its appeal by one vote, and prompted an online petition that gathered more than half a million signatures.
Adamant that the rating was unfair, Harvey Weinstein released the film unrated, where it has done respectable business in two weeks of very limited release in New York , L.A. and Toronto.
But Weinstein and MPAA chairman Christopher Dodd also crafted a solution that essentially allowed both sides to claim victory. TWC submitted a new version of the film in which some but not all of the offending words were muted; the MPAA rated the new version PG-13, and allowed Weinstein to put it in theaters on Friday, waiving the typical 90-day window required of re-rated films.
Weinstein got to brag about getting a PG-13 without cutting a crucial scene that contained three F-bombs (two more than are typically allowed without triggering an automatic R), while MPAA ratings maven Joan Graves could say that the system worked by pointing to the edits that were made in the film.
He said: "They saved face, and we won."
She said: "The ratings system has worked exactly as it is supposed to."
The film itself, said TheWrap's reviewer Alonso Duralde, is "a missed opportunity."
Duralde faulted Hirsch for not including any statistics about bullying, and called the film's intent and message "unimpeachable" but its editing erratic and execution flawed.
One thing he didn't mention: The film's near-total reliance on the stories of bullying among impoverished and lower-middle-class students in small towns in the South and Midwest.
Set in Georgia, Iowa, Texas, Mississippi and Oklahoma, the film's lack of context outside those settings makes bullying appear to be a rural and lower-class problem.
Is bullying every bit as vicious and damaging in, say, Beverly Hills or the Upper East Side of Manhattan? No doubt it is. But by focusing exclusively on the schools he does, Hirsch is inviting the kind of response the film drew from one acerbic friend, who said he liked the documentary but was disturbed by how it featured "one toothless cracker after another."
To escape small-town bullying, two of the families depicted in the film have since moved to Oklahoma City. As wrenching as "Bully" is at times, the film would be more effective if it pointed out that bullies surely walk the hallways there, too, as well as in other, far more urbane and upscale environs.
As for the impact of the ratings fight, National Assn. of Theater Owners president John Fithian told the New York Times last week that Weinstein's repeated ratings battles, which also included "Blue Valentine" and "The King's Speech," could in the long term "bring down the voluntary rating system."
But given that Weinstein eventually submitted to that system with "Bully," and given the movie industry's decades-long fear of the government regulation that the voluntary ratings are designed to ward off, that possibility seem miniscule.
Even long-term change could be unlikely.
(For the record, Weinstein admitted to the Times that in the past, he has indeed used ratings battle to get attention for his movies - but in this case, he's doing so out of passion and "not for publicity.")
The "Bully" battle could conceivably lead the MPAA to craft compromises more often, while continuing to insist that the system is working. Christopher Dodd was reportedly helpful in obtaining the PG-13 for "Bully," and he could certainly weigh in on behalf of other films in the future.
But the major studios that make up the MPAA - a group that does not include the Weinstein Co. - have shown not the slightest sign of wanting to junk the system. And the MPAA is adamantly sticking to the same old stance: it's what parents want.
In fact, Graves' public comments on the controversy are straight out of the playbook written and executed for decades by Jack Valenti, the longtime MPAA chief who helped institute movie ratings in the 1960s.
Valenti's favorite tactic was to show off a survey that said a large percentage of American parents thought the ratings system did a good job - and Graves did exactly the same thing in the hearing at which Weinstein narrowly lost its appeal.
The difference: Valenti always showed off the exact figures, while Graves referred to a yet-unreleased MPAA survey about foul language in films. Graves said that the results of that study show that parents "overwhelmingly" do not want the ratings board to overlook language, particularly the F-word.
But while those overwhelming results were summarized during the private appeal, they have not been released. An MPAA spokesperson did not respond to TheWrap's request for a timeline on when that might happen.
So while "Bully" might have caused the MPAA to be a little more flexible, it certainly hasn't caused them to be any more transparent.
The PG-13 version of "Bully" will expand from three to 55 markets next week, and to around 100 on April 20.