In the midst of media chatter over digital “slacktivism,” one Ann Arbor high school student has proved that collective clicking can be powerful.
When I last wrote about Katy Butler’s online petition fighting an R rating on “Bully,” a now-acclaimed documentary that opens here on April 13, she had already drawn 240,000 online signers to the activist website change.org. Butler, whose finger was once broken when it was slammed in her locker by middle school bullies, launched the petition after hearing about the movie.
She already had been credited with helping to get a Michigan anti-bullying bill passed and signed. And she was convinced the people who most need to see this Lee Hirsch documentary are the 13- and 14-year-old kids an R-rating will keep out.
Nobody foresaw the outcome: Her petition ignited interest in what might otherwise have been a small-budget, serious movie seen by few. “It became the movie. Everyone was talking about it,” says Laura Bayoff-Elkins, a board member on the Uptown Film Festival, which screened “Bully” in March.
The high school student became an appealing heroine — the bullied teen who turned to fight Hollywood and bravely tell her own story.
Flown to Hollywood to appear on “Ellen,” she had the thrill of hearing Ellen Degeneres (“she’s my hero”) greet her saying, “I’m proud of you,” while urging her audience to sign Katy Butler’s petition.
In New York, she met with the film’s producer, Harvey Weinstein, a famously fearsome figure she describes as “a very sweet and kind man.” There were TV appearances, celebrity petition signings (Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Justin Bieber) and support for a ratings change from newspaper and magazine reviewers who invariably mentioned Katy Butler.
Despite what’s now half a million signatures, and the steamrolling media campaign, the Motion Picture Association of America refused to back off its “R” rating. Butler’s meeting with MPAA ratings chief Joan Graves was a disappointment to Butler, who took 200,000 signatures to the Los Angeles meeting.
“She met with me, but I felt she really talked down to me,” Butler says. “She wanted only to explain the importance of keeping the ratings system consistent. Which it isn’t.”
When the movie opens nationally on April 10, it will carry no rating — leading movie houses and schools to develop their own policies. That could mean theaters treat it as an “R” movie, but one that parents and teens are motivated to see.
Barb Zanetti, senior director of Uptown Entertainment, said that their Birmingham theaters are following the lead of national chains in treating the film as R rated. “We are encouraging parents to bring their teens.”
“Parents should take their kids to see this movie,” says Jeff Sakwa, a West Bloomfield businessman who heads “Defeat the Label,” an anti-bullying organization, and brought his 14-year-old daughter to a screening. “It’s powerful and depressing,” he says of the film. “Kids aren’t going to go rush to see it on Saturday night.”
But kids are affected by the kind of cruel behavior, and abusive language, used in the film. And they’re the ones who have the power to change that behavior, through peer pressure and understanding.
In the end, the film’s rating may matter less than the attention Katy Butler brought to the issue and film.
“Our goal is to get kids to see this movie. That will be the victory,” she says.
That’s one victory. The other is all Katy Butler’s: A girl who, once bullied, turned her painful childhood experience into a force for change, a young woman to be reckoned with.
Laura Bermans column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. Reach her at (313) 222-2032 or firstname.lastname@example.org