Releasing a theatrical film without an MPAA rating is a challenge, to say the least. Many major theatrical chains will not screen unsanctioned films, so it was a shock to many when The Weinstein Company elected to release Bully, its heartwrenching and critically lauded documentary about the timely issue of teen bullying, as an unrated film rather than submit to the MPAA’s R rating. TWC argued that the R rating — presumably applied for the film’s repeated profanity — would exclude the very audience that most needed to see this documentary — high-school teens. Their end-around, buttressed by a national online campaign and celebrity support, has been labeled a threat to the industry’s ratings system by the right-leaning Parents Television Council, which called on all movie theaters to ostracize the unrated film. But some theaters have refused to bow to the pressure: Bully will open Friday in five theaters, and TWC has plans to expand to as many as 150 theaters in coming weeks.
But what exactly are the financial prospects for an unrated documentary? Unrated films actually have a respectable tradition at the box-office, but most of the bigger hits were IMAX science and nature documentaries like Everest ($87.2 million) and Space Station 3-D ($85.2 million). Typically, unrated films are unrated because the distributor wants to sidestep the MPAA’s dreaded NC-17 rating, which may as well be called DOA. Artisan released Darren Aronofsky’s raw Requiem for a Dream without a rating in 2000, but it ultimately grossed only $3.6 million. Back in 1995, the Weinsteins, who then ran Miramax, released an unrated Kids, and that controversial drama about promiscuous New York teens navigating drugs and STDs took home $7.4 million.
Bully is neither of those films, but before we venture a guess at its fate, let’s examine closer some of the biggest unrated films of the last 30 years:
Top Unrated IMAX/3-D Films (since 1982)*
Everest (1998) — $87,178,599
Space Station 3-D (2002) — $85,191,687
Magnificent Desolation (2005) — $34,109,736
Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure (2007) — $23,746,066
Bugs! (2003) — $19,063,544
Top Unrated Narrative Films
A Room with a View (1986) — $20,966,644
Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006) — $12,665,721
What the #$*! Do We Know?! (2004) — $10,942,306
La Grande Seduction (2003) — $9,354,342
My Life as a Dog (1987) — $8,345,2661
Top Unrated Documentaries and Concert films
You So Crazy (1994) — $10,184,701
The Aristocrats (2005) — $6,377,461
Stop Making Sense (1984) — $4,949,438
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (2005) — $4,071,700
Born Into Brothels (2004) — $3,515,061
Even with a relatively enormous amount of current audience awareness — due to the documentary’s talk-show du jour subject matter and the self-generated ratings furor — Bully will need enormous per-screen averages to maintain its pre-release momentum since a few theater chains have turned their backs. The two recent documentaries it most resembles don’t appear on the lists above. David Guggenheim’s Waiting for “Superman” (2010) investigated America’s underperforming public schools at a moment when the culture seemed eager for new ideas, but that doc earned just $6,417,135 at the box-office despite a friendly PG rating. Another helpful comparison might be Andrew Jarecki’s jarring 2003 doc, Capturing the Friedmans. The heralded Oscar-nominee also went the unrated route — the film chronicled a family that was at the center of a sex abuse scandal — which likely limited its exposure and yielded a gross of only $3,119,113.
Likely, the Weinsteins are aiming higher than a three to six million dollar take — you don’t hire power attorneys David Boies and Ted Olson to argue your case unless you expect the film’s gross will at least cover their legal fees. Still, an eight-figure total would have to be considered an achievement simply because it would be unprecedented — no recent unrated documentary of its type has even approached that figure. But maybe the Weinsteins don’t care about the bottom line on this one. Maybe this is their version of pro bono work: they passionately believe in Bully‘s message and their circus feud with the MPAA has only served to help spread it. If that’s the case, they’ve already won.
[* All box-office figures courtesy of BoxOfficeMojo.com]