The Weinstein Company recently announced that they would release their documentary "Bully" unrated after months of unsuccessful petitioning alongside celebrities and lawmakers to get their film a PG-13 rating.
While many celebrated and respected the group's decision, believing that children and teens should not be prevented from seeing the film without a parental accompaniment, others like the Parents Television Council condemned the studio's move as a threat to the entire ratings system, regardless of its good intentions.
"If a distribution company can simply decide to operate outside of the ratings system in a case like 'Bully,' nothing would prevent future filmmakers from doing precisely the same thing, with potentially much more problematic material," said PTC President Tim Winter.
"It is unfortunate that the serious problem of schoolyard and online bullying is being overshadowed by a misguided and manufactured controversy over the MPAA rating. It's even more unfortunate that the MPAA ratings system, which only exists as a tool to help parents make informed viewing decisions for their own families, is being deliberately undermined by Weinstein and his colleagues in the entertainment industry, and that their efforts may well spell the demise of a system that has benefited parents and families for over forty years."
Controversy over the film first began when the Motion Picture Association of America decided to give "Bully" an R rating due to its repeated use of the F-word and other expletives by some children in the documentary, which the director argued only portrays the realities of the schoolyard.
Supporters protested the rating through an online petition on Change.org started by high school student Katy Butler, who argued that the MPAA's decision to issue an R rating for the film was wrong.
"It will prevent millions of teenagers from seeing a film that documents the epidemic of bullying in American schools," Butler writes.
"This film has the potential to change the world and change the culture of violence in many schools. But your decision to give this movie an R means that the people who need to see this movie the most –teenagers who are either bullying their peers or suffering from violence and torment at the hands of bullies – won't get to see this film. Nor will this film be allowed to be shown at middle schools and high schools in this country."
The petition, which currently has more than 500,000 signatures, caught the attention of several high-profile celebrities (Anderson Cooper, Ellen DeGeneres, Johnny Depp, Justin Bieber) and lawmakers alike, who all began working together to bring down the rating as well as shine a light on the issue affecting 13 million kids each year.
Despite their combined efforts, however, the MPAA affirmed their R rating, drawing praise from the PTC and frustration from Hirsch and many of his supporters who called the ratings system flawed, broken and inconsistent.
Maude Apatow tweeted, "The MPAA is ridiculous. So you can kill kids in Hunger games but not say the F curse to help kids in Bully?"
Hirsch told Deadline.com that there was a double standard when it came to assigning ratings in the United States.
"Stepping outside the personal situation with my film, I think it's unfortunate that the value judgments by the MPAA allow for graphic violence, homophobia, aggression against women," he said. "All the things we see in a PG-13 film and is acceptable. This just typifies how our rating system is broken."
The PTC president agreed that the MPAA ratings system was sometimes flawed, but he did not discount the R rating given to "Bully," which he felt was accurate.
"Either ratings mean something or they don't. The MPAA's job is not to make subjective judgments about the merit of a film or the importance of the film's message. The MPAA's sole task is to take an objective measure of the adult content in a film, and apply the appropriate rating," Winter affirmed.
"Though the MPAA's system is not perfect, it has been remarkably consistent at least in this regard: any more than a single 'sexual expletive (usually the 'F-word') will lead to an R-rating. 'Bully employs multiple uses of this 'sexual expletive,' and that is why it was given an R-rating."
"It is time for a thoughtful reimagining of the entire movie ratings system," he added. "What parents need and have the right to expect from the MPAA is more clarity, more consistency, more predictability in the ratings system; not a system that is gamed to pick winners and losers or that changes criteria to suit a particular – even noble – point of view."
Additionally, as a parent who witnessed bullying firsthand as well as being touched personally by the tragic consequences up to and including suicide, Winter felt that an accurate rating in no way diminished the powerful and vitally important message conveyed in "Bully."
Nonetheless, the Weinstein Company decided to release the documentary unrated and bypass the MPAA – a risky move due to most theater chains unwilling to screen unrated films.
However, Gerry Lopez, the CEO of AMC, one of the largest movie theater chains, announced his support of the film and previously said that he would make sure "Bully" plays in AMC theaters.
Though the theater supported the MPAA, they felt that the movie should be viewed by anybody that could benefit from the message.
They also stressed that "guests younger than 17" who wanted to see the film at AMC could do so when accompanied by a parent or guardian or with a parental permission slip provided at their website.
Regal Cinemas announced that they would also release the documentary in their theaters but would respect the MPAA's rating and not allow anyone under 17 to see the film by themselves under any circumstances unless accompanied by a parent or guardian.
"Bully" will be released in select theaters this Friday on March 30, 2012.