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Mitchell Block Direct: VI Issue 5: BULLY Chasing An Oscar Nomination

Mitchell Block Direct: VI Issue 5: BULLY Chasing An Oscar Nomination

Vol. I Issue 5
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Two Short Listed Documentary Features
Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, directed by Alison Klayman

Ai Weiwei is China’s most famous international artist, and its most outspoken domestic critic. Against a backdrop of strict censorship and an unresponsive legal system, Ai expresses himself and organizes people through art and social media. In response, Chinese authorities have shut down his blog, beat him up, bulldozed his newly built studio, and held him in secret detention.

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is the inside story of a dissident for the digital age who inspires global audiences and whose actions blur the boundaries of art and politics. First-time director Alison Klayman gained unprecedented access to Ai while working as a journalist in China. Her detailed portrait of Weiwei’s life and work allows us to follow Weiwei’s journey and his transformation of his life and works are perceived. Few artists have been able to use their public stature to help cause political change. Clearly this is the story of a giant killer. Regrettably the story continues and China continues to repress its people.

What’s special about Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry is that the filmmaker was able to follow Ai Weiwei over several years. We are able to see a Chinese dissident whose home is watched by 1984-like cameras hung from telephone and power poles.  We can only assume his home is bugged, his cell phone is bugged and all of his computers are bugged.  The power of this work is seeing an artist functioning in this environment. Shocking. His spirit is best shown in his defiant art, his raised middle finger in the foreground of many still images of iconic monuments to the Chinese peoples’ struggles. He dares to challenge America’s biggest trading partner, debt holder and, by the end of the film, he is shown silenced, unable to comment because he was released from detention.  The irony of this powerful work is that we and the world are shown to be complicit.

While the film lacks the slickness of many of the Academy’s short listed docs, its power flows from the subject. Clearly an artist whose work reflects his life experiences and struggle is a difficult subject. Weiwei constantly tweaks the authorities who clearly fear its citizens being free to express themselves and their feelings about their government globally. Yet the world is silent about this repressive government that spies on, beats up and terrorizes its citizens. This is another film that should be nominated. Its construction, score, shooting suggests that Ms. Klayman can, with some more experience, become an extraordinary filmmaker.


Alison Klayman, Director, Producer, Cinematographer

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorryis Alison Klayman’s debut feature documentary, which she directed, produced, filmed and co-edited. She is a 2011 Sundance Documentary Fellow and one of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film”. She has been a guest on The Colbert Report, as well as CNN and NPR. Klayman lived in China from 2006 to 2010, working as a freelance journalist. She speaks Mandarin and Hebrew, and graduated from Brown University in 2006.

Adam Schlesinger, Producer

Adam Schlesinger is an award-winning independent film producer based in New York. He produced the Sundance Film Festival selections: Smash His Camera, which won for Best Director; Page One- Inside the New York Times; and God Grew Tired of Us, winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award.

Director/Producer/Writer/Camera: Alison Klayman
Producer: Adam Schlesinger
Contributing Producer: Colin 
Executive Producers:  Andrew Cohen, Julie Goldman, Karl 
Music: Ilan Isakov  
Editor: Jen Fineran   
Production Companies: Expressions United Media, MUSE Film and Television, Never Sorry  
Distribution:  Sundance Selects, Artificial Eye

Bully, directed by Lee Hirsch
A Case Study: How to be Short Listed and Gross $3Million

Bully, directed by Lee Hirsch
A Case Study: How to be Short Listed and Gross $3Million

Bully is a character-driven documentary that looks at how bullying has touched five children and their families. The five stories each represent a different facet of bullying. Filmed over the course of the 2009/2010 school year, Bully opens a window onto the lives of bullied kids, revealing a problem that transcends geographic, racial, ethnic and economic borders. It documents the responses of teachers and administrators to aggressive behaviors that defy “kids will be kids” clichés, and it captures a growing movement among parents and youths to change how bullying is handled in schools, in communities and in society as a whole.

Bully is a case study of how The Weinstein Company can take what would be a traditional non-theatrical documentary feature and turn it into both a cause and a theatrical event and, because of the rule changes at the Academy, have it come to be short listed for an Oscar. 

Bully is an excellent film, it is well made, directed, edited and scored. Its characters and stories are well done. It’s just not in the same league as many of the documentary films short listed for this year’s Academy Award nomination.

When the film was released with an “R” rating, appropriate and consistent with the MPAA guidelines because of language and violence, the Weinsteins used the R rating to create a controversy which enabled the film to become a box office success and was the basis of a brilliant Academy campaign for a documentary nomination. This is one of the best examples (since Michael Moore and Roger and Menot being nominated for an Oscar) of creating a box-office success with a documentary. (Roger and Mewas distributed by Warners.) As of December 30, 2012 Bully had grossed over $3.5 million. (Box Office Mojo)

The MPAA gives an automatic “R” rating to films that use the “F” word.  It has done this since its inception. This makes sense. The “F” word is inappropriate for children. But wait, Bullyis for middle and high school students! These schools can’t (or should not) show “R” rated films. 

The MPAA rating system has never been particularly clear to Americans. Developed by the Motion Picture Association to prevent local and/or regional ratings it has always been “advisory”; however, some media outlets will not accept advertising or promote films with some of the harder ratings.  The Weinsteins knew that this film would get an “R” rating because of the “F” word.  No surprise. Yet how could this “important” film for school children to see be blocked from its audience?

 “Bully’s R ratingsparks a nationwide protest. stars, theater owners, and Members of Congress have joined forces to protest the film’s R rating as a result of the film having six swear words.” This is in the industry press. (Deadline) 

The Weinsteins, of course with great fanfare, appealed the rating decision which got the film more press.  They decided to release the film in just two markets to qualify for the documentary Academy award, without a rating, but continue the press-push to have the rating changed.

On April 5, The Weinstein Company announced that their doc, Bully, was to receive a PG-13 from the MPAA, with some minor cuts. After removing three uses of the F-word it was re-released in the new PG-13 version on April 13 and shortly after the run was expanded to 55 theatrical markets.

Deadline reported, “The big victory, even though they had to remove three F-words, was that they could keep the controversial school bus bullying scene unedited and uncut, which (the director) Hirsch continuously refused to edit, “since it is too important to the truth and integrity behind the film.” Hirsch states: “I feel completely vindicated with this resolution. While I retain my belief that PG-13 has always been the appropriate rating for this film, as reinforced by Canada’s rating of a PG, we have today scored a victory from the MPAA. The support and guidance we have received throughout this process has been incredible.”

Let’s note that the MPAA is an industry trade association. The Weinsteins are members. It’s not exactly a group that battles. The ratings are advisory only.

The Weinstein press release continued the illusion, This decision by the MPAA is a huge victory for the parents, educators, lawmakers, and most importantly, children, everywhere who have been fighting for months for the appropriate PG-13 rating without cutting some of the most sensitive moments. Three uses of the ‘F word’ were removed from other scenes, which ultimately persuaded the MPAA to lower the rating. Hirsch made the documentary with the intent to give an uncensored, real-life portrayal of what 13 million children suffer through every year. The new rating, which came about with the great support from MPAA Chairman Chris Dodd, grants the schools, organizations and cities all around the country who are lined up and ready to screen BULLY, including the National Education Association and the Cincinnati School District, the opportunity to share this educational tool with their children.”

It needs to be pointed out that this controversy was a set up. When The Weinstein Company released Bully “unrated” in theaters in New York and Los Angeles it barely earned $150,000. The film might be seen by a few hundred thousand people in theaters which is a theatrical success but not the millions of kids the filmmakers are on record to reach. (A $3.5 mil gross suggests at a $6 admission fee perhaps a half-million tickets were sold.) Millions of people don’t usually go to theaters to see docs. So a $3.5 mil theatrical gross makes this film a major theatrical success. It puts this film in the top 50 or so theatrical documentaries of all time.

But all along, the Weinsteins knew that the film can easily be provided in DVD and in video-on-demand to schools, teachers, students and families in an “Educational” version without the R rated language being included. The use of an educational version would totally serve the school market. This version could be provided for “free” or even for a modest fee if the Weinsteins were really interested in this aspect of marketing the film. The Bullybook is available now for sale and soon the Blu Ray and DVD. Seeing the film in a classroom and then talking about it is what educators do with films. There are over 100,000 school, church and other groups (like Girls Scouts) that can show this film to groups of kids.

Note: Full disclosure, I started a Move-on Campaign and petitioned the Weinsteins to offer

Bully for a Buck! after I saw the film.  More than 480 people have signed the petition to date. No match for the hundreds of thousands who signed the rating controversy petition but I did not do any publicity.  As a parent of two teens, I felt this was a far more logical thing to do to get the film out to children without the strong language. This petition continues on    

Bully Short Listed for an Academy Award

With the rule change at the Academy this year, the documentary branch is working as a committee of the whole to do both the short listing and the nomination. The committee members were sent 125 documentary features, mostly arriving at the tail end of the deadline, to review. The committee was made up of both documentary branch members and Academy members who have been nominated or won documentary Oscars. Obviously, few members saw all 125 documentaries. The short list of 15 films was made from tallying the results of each member’s list of their 15 top docs. I think the publicity for Bully insured it would make this list.

The Weinsteins also had it screened at the Academy as part of the Academy members screening program, one of the handful of documentaries that were screened as part of the weekend program. This also will likely help the film get on members’ radar. Smart. Last year, The Weinsteins’ film The Undefeatedwon the Documentary Oscar. They do a great job getting their films out. 

Directed by: Lee Hirsch  
Produced by: Lee Hirsch, Cynthia Lowen  
Written by: Lee Hirsch, Cynthia Lowen  
Executive Producer: Cindy Waitt  
Cinematography:  Lee Hirsch
Edited by: Lindsay Utz, Jenny Golden
Original Score by: Ion Furjanic, Justin Rice/Christian Rudder 
Consulting Editors: Enat Sidi, Cynthia Lowen
Music Supervisor: Brooke Wentz  
Running Time: 94 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for some language

Short Notes and Update:

WGA Announces Nominees for Documentary Screenplay Award

The WGA announced six nominees for its documentary screenplay award: War, Mea Culpa and Sugar Man also are on the Academy shortlist of feature docs hoping to score an Oscar nomination.

Winners will be honored by the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW) and the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) at the 2013 Writers Guild Awards on Feb. 17 during simultaneous ceremonies in Los Angeles and New York.


The Central Park Five, written by Sarah Burns and David McMahon and Ken Burns; Sundance Selects
The Invisible War, written by Kirby Dick; Cinedigm Entertainment Group
Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God, written by Alex Gibney; HBO Documentary Films
Searching for Sugar Man, written by Malik Bendejelloul; Sony Pictures Classics
We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, written by Brian Knappenberger; Cinetic Media
West of Memphis, written by Amy Berg & Billy McMillin; Sony Pictures Classics

Sundance Announces 2013 Documentary Competition:

The world premieres of 16 American documentary films.

99% – The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film/ U.S.A. (Directors: Audrey Ewell, Aaron Aites, Lucian Read, Nina Krstic) The Occupy movement erupted in September 2011, propelling economic inequality into the spotlight. In an unprecedented collaboration, filmmakers across America tell its story, digging into big picture issues as organizers, analysts, participants and critics reveal how it happened and why.

After Tiller/ U.S.A. (Directors: Martha Shane, Lana Wilson) — Since the assassination of Dr. George Tiller in 2009, only four doctors in the country provide late-term abortions. With unprecedented access, After Tiller goes inside the lives of these physicians working at the center of the storm.

American Promise/ U.S.A. (Directors: Joe Brewster, Michèle Stephenson) — This intimate documentary follows the 12-year journey of two African-American families pursuing the promise of opportunity through the education of their sons.

Blackfish/ U.S.A. (Director: Gabriela Cowperthwaite) — Notorious killer whale Tilikum is responsible for the deaths of three individuals, including a top killer whale trainer. Blackfish shows the sometimes devastating consequences of keeping such intelligent and sentient creatures in captivity.

Blood Brother/ U.S.A. (Director: Steve Hoover) — Rocky went to India as a disillusioned tourist. When he met a group of children with HIV, he decided to stay. He never could have imagined the obstacles he would face, or the love he would find.

Citizen Koch / U.S.A. (Directors: Carl Deal, Tia Lessin) — Wisconsin – birthplace of the Republican Party, government unions, “cheeseheads” and Paul Ryan – becomes a test market in the campaign to buy Democracy, and ground zero in the battle for the future of the GOP.

Cutie and the Boxer/ U.S.A. (Director: Zachary Heinzerling) — This candid New York love story explores the chaotic 40-year marriage of famed boxing painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko. Anxious to shed her role of assistant to her overbearing husband, Noriko seeks an identity of her own.

Dirty Wars/ U.S.A. (Director: Richard Rowley) — Investigative journalist Jeremy Scahill chases down the truth behind America’s covert wars.

Gideon’s Army/ U.S.A. (Director: Dawn Porter) — Gideon’s Army follows three young, committed Public Defenders who are dedicated to working for the people society would rather forget. Long hours, low pay and staggering caseloads are so common that even the most committed often give up.

God Loves Uganda/ U.S.A. (Director: Roger Ross Williams) — A powerful exploration of the evangelical campaign to infuse African culture with values imported from America’s Christian Right. The film follows American and Ugandan religious leaders fighting “sexual immorality” and missionaries trying to convince Ugandans to follow biblical law.

Inequality for All/ U.S.A. (Director: Jacob Kornbluth) — In this timely and entertaining documentary, noted economic-policy expert Robert Reich distills the topic of widening income inequality, and addresses the question of what effects this increasing gap has on our economy and our democracy.

Life According to Sam/ U.S.A. (Directors: Sean Fine, Andrea Nix Fine) — Dr. Leslie Gordon and Dr. Scott Berns fight to save their only son from a rare and fatal aging disease for which there is no cure. Their work may one day unlock the key to aging in all of us.

MANHUNT / U.S.A., United Kingdom (Director: Greg Barker) — This espionage tale goes inside the CIA’s long conflict against Al Qaeda, as revealed by the remarkable women and men whose secret war against Osama bin Laden started nearly a decade before most of us even knew his name.

Narco Cultura/ U.S.A. (Director: Shaul Schwarz) — An examination of Mexican drug cartels’ influence in pop culture on both sides of the border as experienced by an LA narcocorrido singer dreaming of stardom and a Juarez crime scene investigator on the front line of Mexico’s Drug War.

Twenty Feet From Stardom/ U.S.A. (Director: Morgan Neville) — Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight.  Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we’ve had no idea who these singers are or what lives they lead – until now. DAY ONE FILM

Valentine Road/ U.S.A. (Director: Marta Cunningham) — In 2008, eighth-grader Brandon McInerney shot classmate Larry King at point blank range. Unraveling this tragedy from point of impact, the film reveals the heartbreaking circumstances that led to the shocking crime as well as its startling aftermath.
Credits: Editing by Jessica Just for SydneysBuzz
Block Doc Workshops in Los Angeles February 2013
The International Documentary Association will be hosting Documentary Funding and Documentary Tune-Up Workshops with Block on February 9/10.

Mitchell Block specializes in conceiving, producing, marketing & distributing independent features & consulting. He is an expert in placing both completed works into distribution & working with producers to make projects fundable. He conducts regular workshops in film producing in Los Angeles and most recently in Maine, Russia and in Myanmar (Burma).

Poster Girl, produced by Block was nominated for a Documentary Academy Award and selected by the IDA as the Best Doc Short 2011. It was also nominated for two Emmy Awards and aired on HBO. He is an executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning PBS series Carrier, a 10-hour series that he conceived & co-created. Block is a graduate of Tisch School and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business. He is a member of Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, the Television Academy, a founding member of BAFTA-LA and has been teaching at USC School of Cinematic Arts since 1979. Currently Block teaches a required class in the USC Peter Stark Producing Program. ______________________________________________________________________

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