Lee Hirsch and Katy Butler
"Bully" director Lee Hirsch and 17-year-old activist Katy Butler were hoping the MPAA would reconsider its decision to give the documentary an R rating. Reuters

Lee Hirsch's documentary Bully will open in select U.S. theaters Friday without a rating, after the Weinstein Co. failed to persuade the Motion Picture Association of America to overturn the R rating it initially assigned in favor of a PG-13.

Katy Butler, a 17-year old Michigan high school student who was tormented at her former middle school after revealing her sexual orientation, was at the center of a grass-roots campaign to ensure Bully would reach those likely to benefit most from its message -- adolescents and teenagers for whom bullying is often a serious everyday threat.

Despite drawing widespread celebrity support and nearly half a million signatures on a Change.org petition asking the MPAA to rate Bully PG-13, the campaign ultimately fell short: The MPAA's ratings appeal board voted to keep the R rating intact if the studio didn't re-edit the film to remove repeated instances of profanity.

The reality is that we stated all along that we were not going to release this movie with an 'R' [rating],' said Stephen Bruno, president of marketing for the Weinstein Co. They didn't want to release it as a PG-13.

At that point, there were two options: Do we edit the movie, or do we release it unrated? So we chose not to edit.

Children can't edit their lives, so why should we edit the movie? Bruno added.

While releasing a movie without a rating carries a high risk of compromised distribution, Bully got a boost from American Multi-Cinema Theaters, or AMC, the second-biggest movie theater chain in the United States. AMC will allow minors into the film even if they're unaccompanied by an adult, as long as they are carrying a note of permission from a parent or guardian.

AMC Theaters CEO Gerry Lopez had previously signed Katy Butler's petition on Change.org, but Bruno said there was no guarantee of support from AMC before the Weinstein Co. made the decision to release the film unrated.

They did that one on their own, Bruno said. It was really brave.

'Not Exactly What We Wanted'

Butler was confident the decision to surrender the R rating could mean more people will be able to see Bully.

But it's still not exactly what we wanted, she said.

Butler, who has already seen the film, will join a school field trip to see Bully once it arrives in theaters in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Everyone can't wait, she said. My teachers are so pumped about it. We're a middle school and a high school. ... We're having all 500 of [us] go see this movie.

Though numerous reports raised concerns about what the documentary's unrated status would mean for in-school screenings, both Butler and Bruno agreed that the focus should remain on making Bully accessible in theaters.

We want it to be shown in theaters and we want kids to go see the movie in theaters instead of having it shown at schools. Because the theaters are a ... safe environment and a new place, Butler said.

Michael Jones, deputy campaign director of Change.org, was measured in his optimism about the prospects for an unrated Bully.

It's still unknown how individual theaters will treat the film, Jones said, adding that he hoped other theater chains will follow AMC's lead. (Regal Theaters, the largest theater chain in the country, announced Thursday it would treat Bully as an R-rated film.)

I think it's progress, Jones said of the unrated documentary release. Is it as a good as a PG rating? That's debatable.

Jones said that Butler's petition was one of the most popular campaigns in Change.org history.

Referring to a New York Times report that quoted MPAA Chairman Christopher Dodd, Jones pointed out that Dodd admitted that the MPAA has heard from people loud and clear on this. And they realized they can't be tone-deaf on people's frustrations, and that's in large part because of Katy's campaign.

Dodd referred in the Times report to online petitioners as MPAA's customers and said it behooves us to listen to them. We need to be part of that conversation instead of wringing our hands.

Discussing relations between the Weinstein Co. and the MPAA, Bruno said everything had been aboveboard and totally respectful.

We've been in this discussion since the end of February and the movie wasn't due for release until March 30, he continued. For a long time, we thought we could win.

So why didn't they?

'You Can't Rate Reality'

As Bruno pointed out, the MPAA appeals board is independent from the association itself, though historically one out of 13 board members is an MPAA representative. An MPAA official who spoke on condition of anonymity, and who wasn't able to reveal the makeup of the appeals board assigned to the Bully hearing, described the remaining members of a typical board as entertainment industry professionals -- independent filmmakers, studio representatives and theater employees, for example.

There is also a seat for observers from religious organizations -- often, but not always, members of the clergy. (Not all religious representatives have necessarily been ordained, explained the MPAA official). Sometimes there are two religious observers present, but according to the MPAA official, they don't vote.

Bruno didn't attend the ratings appeal hearing for Bully. Only two people from the side arguing for a rating change are permitted to attend and argue the case. On behalf of Bully, Weinstein Co. Chairman Harvey Weinstein attended with Alex Libby, a young victim of severe bullying whose story is featured in the documentary.

They went in and made their case for why the movie should be rated PG-13, Bruno explained. One of the points was that there was a precedent -- a movie called 'Gunner Palace' -- a 2004 documentary about a group of soldiers in Baghdad during the Iraq War.

Gunner Palace, said Bruno, had 43 instances of the F word. Despite this, that film's producers successfully appealed to have an R rating changed to PG-13. The MPAA said it was because it was during wartime and it was something people needed to see.

One of our arguments was, well we have six [instances of the F word], and the bullying that is going on in schools is somewhat of a war. And we feel as though that precedent should apply.

Gunner Palace director Michael Tucker said the Weinstein Co. should have invoked a broader argument against what he feels are systemic problems within the MPAA rating system.

I don't think it was argued correctly, because they're asking for an exception, Tucker said. The only way that you're ever going to beat the MPAA is to look at community standards, which is what Tucker said he did in his appeal for Gunner Palace.

Tucker believes his appeal was successful, in part, because he brought into his argument examples of unrestricted entertainment -- animated television sitcoms, for example -- that he felt demonstrated a shift in standards of what is acceptable content for minors.

Our argument was really about language and community standards, Tucker said. But it was also about the realities of war.

In the end, the reason why we won [is] that we had a compelling argument: You can't rate reality.

Tucker described the MPAA's language guidelines as ridiculous but felt that the Weinstein Co. and Bully supporters missed an opportunity to advocate for broader changes in the MPAA's rating process.

It's not about saying, 'Hey, make an exception because kids really need to see this movie,' Tucker said. It's about saying, 'I think overall they are ready for this, and here are our reasons why.'

Tucker has seen Bully twice, once with his 16-year-old daughter.

He said the documentary is very powerful but hopes the message isn't diluted by the larger controversy.

'We Don't Talk Box Office Predictions'

After Weinstein and Libby made their case, the appeals board voted 8-5 in favor of a PG-13 rating, missing the required two-thirds majority by one vote.

I think it's telling that eight out of 13 voted in favor [of the PG-13 rating], said Bruno, who didn't express any anger or resentment toward the MPAA.

Instead, he and other Bully supporters are grateful for the awareness the film -- and yes, the rating dispute -- has brought to the issue of bullying in schools.

Asked how the Weinstein Co. would measure the documentary's success, Bruno said, We don't talk about box office predictions. I think the amount of awareness we've gotten pulled toward the issue is already a success.

Still, as Jones pointed out: Katy's petition mobilized almost half a million people. If everyone who signed her petition buys a ticket to see this movie, it will be an amazingly successful documentary.