In the devastating trailer for Bully, a heartbreaking message flashes between the footage from Lee Hirsch’s documentary about the bullying epidemic amongst youths. It reads, simply, “The problem is being ignored.”
Fortunately, thanks to the documentary, which arrives in theaters in limited release this weekend, that may no longer be the case. The film — which has received high-profile support from the likes of Ellen DeGeneres, Justin Timberlake, Katy Perry, Jimmy Fallon, Zooey Deschanel, Hugh Jackman, Mariah Carey, Russell Crowe, Kim Kardashian, and The Walking Dead‘s Norman Reedus, among many others — may actually wind up getting the most help for its cause from its unlikeliest foe: The MPAA.
In one of their most controversial ratings to date, the MPAA gave Bully an R rating, a decision that prompted the film’s distributor The Weinstein Company to campaign to reverse the rating. Despite TWC’s efforts — as well as a petition on Change.org signed by nearly half a million people — to overrule Bully’s rating, the MPAA did not back down. While some theater chains will still release Bully as an R-rated feature, TWC has refused the R-rating and will release the film as unrated.
So how will this bode for Bully at the box office? Here’s where things get complicated. While the MPAA’s refusal to change their stringent R-rating rules (they’ll only allow so many curse words to differentiate between an R and a PG-13. Just ask The King’s Speech) hurts the film’s chances to be seen by its target audience, the rating has also given the documentary more positive publicity than it could have possibly asked for. (Here is a movie in which people are actively campaigning to ensure it’s seen by the masses. Can’t exactly say the same for this weekend’s “big” release Wrath of the Titans, can you?)
Of course, this isn’t the first time a film has faced off against the MPAA. In 2010, the haunting indie drama Blue Valentine was surprisingly slapped with an NC-17 because of a sex scene. The Weinstein Co. once again appealed the rating and ultimately wound up with their desired R rating. While the film was by no means a box office smash (it earned just $9.7 million in the U.S. alone), the controversy brought some extra attention to the movie, which ultimately earned a Best Actress Oscar nomination for its leading lady Michelle Williams.
In fact, many MPAA-feuding small releases often catch the attention of the Academy. As chronicled in the compelling ratings documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (which, wouldn’t you know know, is unrated), movies such as Boys Don’t Cry and The Cooler, whose filmmakers battled the MPAA after getting slapped with an NC-17, found redemption with the Academy. While both films eventually earned their R ratings, neither were box office hits (they earned $11.5 million and 10.4 million, respectively). But Hillary Swank earned a Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of Brandon Teena in Boy’s Don’t Cry, while Alec Baldwin earned a Best Supporting Actor nod for his work in The Cooler.
But even though these films also had the odds stacked against them (a lethal MPAA rating, independent distribution, controversy), Bully has yet another obstacle in its way: It’s a documentary film. Three of the top-grossing docs of all time are more family-friendly fare: Earth, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, and March of the Penguins. Then again, the highest-grossing documentary in movie history, Michael Moore’s Farenheit 9/11 ($119 million in the U.S. alone) opened to a heap of controversy and came out at a time when people demanded more content about the subject matter. Perhaps Bully won’t be so ignored, both at the box office and come Oscar season, after all.