The Motion Picture Association of America finds itself in the middle of another heated debate about what’s acceptable in U.S. theaters. This time, the subject of controversy is the documentary Bully, which hits theaters Friday. These cinematic controversies, whether the result of legitimate debates about free speech and morality or of cynical ploys to drum up publicity, have been raging since moving pictures first came to theaters – even before the MPAA was created. Regardless of the success or failure of Bully, it will certainly not be the last such conflict to catch the media's eye.
Bully, which focuses on the issue of peer violence among America's youth, tells the stories of five kids who were the victims of bullying, showing actual footage of the children as they make their way through the treacherous world of high school. The disturbing and occasionally shocking film, punctuated with xxx-rated abusive language, is not mere child's play; two of the subjects committed suicide due to their mistreatment.
The “F-word”, uttered six times, prompted the MPAA to stamp the film with an “R” rating. Despite many protests from The Weinstein Company (which produced the film), film reviewers, and anti-bullying lobbying groups who view the film as a powerful educational tool, the MPAA has remained firm in its decision. In effect, this means that children under 17 (arguably the group the film is targeted to) cannot see it without an accompanying adult.
In contrast, the fictional blockbuster The Hunger Games, which opened last weekend and grossed $152.5 million, had no trouble receiving a PG-13 rating, despite multiple instances of child-on-child violence. In England, The Hunger Games has stirred a controversy over the ratings, but where the British have a history of banning disturbingly violent films, the bète noir of the MPAA has always been sex and obscenity.
Ratings controversies have been with Hollywood almost since the beginning. In the early days, when film was simply a new technology to marvel at and not an integral piece of pop culture, there were no restrictions. Much like the infancy of the Internet, there was a kind of “Wild West”, anything goes quality to the product. Modern filmgoers are often shocked at the frankness of what has come to be called "pre-code Hollywood."
As the ‘20s roared on, a growing concern was building about this emerging phenomenon. Stories such as the Fatty Arbuckle scandal had the moral guardians of the world clucking, "Won't somebody think of the children!" It didn't take long for Hollywood to garner its reputation as a den of sleaze and depravity.
Fearing that the government would step in to censor the industry, the studios decided to do it themselves and hired a Presbyterian minister and former postmaster general, Will H. Hays, as the industry’s publicist. Hays started the organization that would eventually become the MPAA and created a list of guidelines that would stay largely unchanged from 1930 ‘til 1968.
But by the ‘60s many things had changed. Television was raising the question (still being asked), "Why go to the movies when I can watch it at home?" Post-war European cinema, devoid of American prudery, was coming to the States in force. Films such as Billy Wilder's 1959 cross-dressing classic Some Like It Hot were released without a rating and still became giant hits. It was time for a change.
Thus, the ratings board as we know it today was created, along with its letter rating system (G, PG, R, etc). Former Democratic Sen. Chris Dodd currently heads the MPAA, but for most of its existence, the group was under the arm of Jack Valenti, a controversial figure who insisted that all of the ratings board members be parents and that their identities be kept a secret. Valenti was often accused of being absurdly prudish toward depictions of sexuality (particularly of the non-traditional variety) while turning a blind eye to increasingly graphic representations of violence.
As Bully shows, the peculiarities of the MPAA’s system continue to confound filmmakers, and sometimes audiences. The Weinsteins have a long history of making not just lemonade but champagne out of MPAA lemons. Rather than accept the MPAA's “R,” they have opted to release the film without a rating. The irony, of course, is the ensuing controversy has made the film a cause célèbre, generating far more publicity for the little documentary than it would have had otherwise.
In fact, rather than being a hindrance, the controversy over an MPAA rating, can often lead to greater exposure for a small film, which in turn usually leads to greater profits as well. The accompanying slideshow lists some of the most noteworthy scandals the MPAA has been involved in, as well as the films that caused the scandals and the money they made from the whole affair.