The decision by Universal to remove Blumhouse Prods.’ “The Hunt” from its planned September 27 release had the earmarks for a knee-jerk reaction to the controversy provoked by Fox Cable News and Donald Trump. However, sources tell IndieWire that hough the announcement came after the strategically executed uproar, the choice to cancel the date had already been made.
By the morning of August 5 — just after the El Paso and Dayton massacres, and four days before the film’s official cancellation — banners for “The Hunt” were dismantled on the Universal lot in Los Angeles. This is different than pulling TV spots; in terms of studio protocol, it is almost always a sign of a film will be dropped from release.
The complications of scrapping a release date involves both internal and external niceties as well as financial issues. Like most studios, Universal isn’t imperious about its creative partners, and needed a period for consultation. Advertising buys were already committed; negotiating with outlets about their rescheduling or replacement isn’t simple. And the PR strategy for explaining the move also is critical.
However, Universal lost the ability to appear proactive rather than reactive. By midweek, conservative media, then presidential comments, turned the film into a cause celebre with the shared agenda of taking blame for the tragedies off of racism, or ease of gun availability, to video games and violent movies.
A satire from a production company known for hitting the zeitgeist jackpot with inventive, contemporary films like “Get Out,” “Us,” “BlackKklansman,” “The Purge” franchise and others, “The Hunt” involves a group of heavily armed rich people hunting down rural locals as an organized game. The plot is the latest iteration of the famous 1924 Richard Connell short story, “The Most Dangerous Game.” Adaptations include the 1932 version of the same name made on the “King Kong” set by its creators, and with two of the same actors — it’s a Criterion Collection title and another directed by Robert Wise in 1945 “A Game of Death”, among others; “The Hunger Games” uses the same basic plot.
In all cases, the villains are the pursuers; the heroes are the pursued. Sources say “The Hunt” portrays rich left-wingers hunting internet conspiracy theorists; the idea promoted by Fox News, which sparked right-wing outrage inflamed by the White House, was the movie encouraged the idea of hunting down conservatives.
Whatever its intent, a film in which one group of Americans targets another with weaponry was seen as an inappropriate release given recent mass shootings. Finding a time period when this doesn’t happen could be a challenge. Also, the current, super-charged political culture would mean facing reactions based on misconceptions. Potential targets might include a theater playing the film.
The appearance of bending to pressure is disheartening, and it reinforces the notion that it is best to go with the familiar and predictable than to take a risk. Playwright George Kaufman famously said that satire is what closes on Saturday night; today, it is tricky to even open one.
“The Hunt” now joins a long list of films that chose to change its release plans in the face of real-life tragedies. “Dr. Strangelove” was scheduled for a December 1963 release to qualify for awards, but was delayed until 1964 by the JFK assassination. In 2002, “Phone Booth,” with its theme of a sniper killing innocent people, was delayed for a year after a similar crime spree around Washington, D.C. The 2007 UK release of “Gone Baby Gone” was postponed by six months in the face of a similar child-murder case. Don Siegel’s “The Killers” was scheduled to be the first made-for-TV Universal movie early in 1964, but its violence led the studio to switch it to theatrical. And when Ronald Reagan became politically active, he asked them to h showings of the film since he played a bad guy.
More recently, Universal held to its release dates for Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” in 1989, which faced flak over dubious claims of possible incendiary provocation, and for Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ,” which faced major protests from conservative religious figures. Both went on to be released without incident — but there was neither social media, a president weighing in, nor a specter of mass slaughter in the news.
If “The Hunt” is never released, that would be a horrible precedent. The studio does have its upcoming streaming platform, where this could easily play. Sony’s “The Interview” had both a theatrical and VOD day- and date run in December 2014, with $6 million in theatrical and $44 million in VOD grosses. “The Hunt” is reported to have cost somewhere in the $10-15 million range before marketing.
With prime film festivals just ahead, one possible course is to premiere the film, perhaps unannounced; Telluride would be ideal, but Toronto and others are also possible, or even Sundance, where “The Hunt” director Craig Zobel has premiered all three of his other films.
The issues of crisis management here are petty compared to the lost lives and increased threat of similar events. It’s hard to fault Universal for taking this action, even if the timing make it appeared they made it unwillingly. If nothing else, its future release could serve to prove some people jumped to conclusions.
“The Hunt” is hardly the first controversial film to get canceled, and it won't be the last. Violent, politicized entertainment isn't a groundbreaking concept, but given the ever-more blurred lines between politics and entertainment and under the influence of daily social media grievance cycles, carefully marketing controversial projects is becoming increasingly important for film and television distributors.
Case in point: two upcoming television projects, HBO’s “Watchmen” and Fox’s “Almost Family”, both deal with hot-button issues and could be in a similar line of fire as “The Hunt.” To date, the two shows are taking vastly different approaches to quelling concerns.
“Watchmen,” the acclaimed graphic novel, is getting a television adaption on HBO in October. The series will take place in contemporary America, several decades after the comic book's plot, and will focus on the aftereffects of a white supremacist group terrorizing police officers.
Since “Watchmen” premieres in October, HBO's heavy marketing for the series is still a few weeks away. That said, an HBO spokesperson said they were confident with their marketing plans for the series and do not plan on changing their strategy in response to recent real-world events.
“HBO has a long history of championing thought-provoking storytelling like ‘Watchmen,’ a blend of fantastical science fiction and political/social commentary which is based on the original iconic graphic novel,” the spokesperson told IndieWire in a statement. “We have approached the marketing of ‘Watchmen’ with great care from the outset. The first two trailers for the series have already been released and our future materials will continue in the same vein. There are no current plans to alter the marketing strategy in any significant way.”
Regardless, even if the series' marketing to date de-emphasizes its more controversial themes, its handling of white supremacist terrorism and policing will inevitably be brought up by reporters and critics when series creator Damon Lindelof and others begin doing more press for the show.
Though Lindelof's representatives did not return requests for comment, he is prepared; he received several questions about the series' dramatization of white supremacist terrorism during the “Watchmen” panel at TCA in late July. He noted that the original “Watchmen” comic also directly addressed then-contemporary political issues and said his upcoming HBO series would similarly deal with topics that are relevant to American audiences in 2019.
“The 'Watchmen' comic was about what was happening in American culture at the time,” Lindeholf said at TCA. “What, in 2019, is the equivalent of the nuclear standoff between the Russians and the United States? And it just felt like it was undeniably race and policing in America. And so that idea started to graft itself into the 'Watchmen' universe and needed to be presented in a responsible way.”
So far, nothing revealed about “Watchmen” has been as nakedly pandering as the references to “deplorables” and “elites” in “The Hunt.” While the mere mention of white supremacist villains in “Watchmen” spawned the predictable kinds of pushback and vitriol in the cesspool that is every online comment section, the upcoming series has yet to provoke any anger worth taking seriously.
On the polar opposite end of the spectrum you have Fox's “Almost Family,” a lighthearted drama about half siblings who learn they are related because a fertility doctor used his own sperm to conceive at least 100 children throughout his career. The series has been mired in controversy since its announcement, and the show's creators – who include Annie Weisman and Jason Katims – have failed to alleviate concerns about its premise of nonconsensual insemination.
Defending how your television show won't focus on the “medical rape”—a term used by reporters during the show's TCA panel—that inspires the series' entire plot in the era of #MeToo is, by most measures, not exactly a great way to generate positive buzz. IndieWire has reached out to Fox.
Studios axing projects in the face of considerable controversy seems inevitable in the face of corporate profits and moronic Tweetstorms, but the significant financial costs of doing so could be mitigated by carefully marketing these projects at the outset. In short: be more like HBO and own it, and be less like Fox, who seems surprised by the backlash.
Over the weekend, Universal announced that it would be canceling the release of “The Hunt,” an upcoming thriller produced by Blumhouse, due to a storyline involving shooters that was deemed inappropriate following mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in which at least 31 people were killed. In a statement, the studio said, “Now is not the time to release this film.” In response to the decision, IndieWire’s Eric Kohn and David Ehrlich traded thoughts on the decision.
ERIC KOHN: It’s 2019. Don’t the movies have enough to worry about? Declining box office and the looming shadow of the streaming wars have put the medium on edge; now, it’s being scapegoated by the so-called leader of the free world. Of course, Donald Trump’s moronic tweet-storm in which he singled out “The Hunt” as an example of “liberal Hollywood” attempting to “inflame and cause chaos” is just another means of deflection, an attempt to cast the nation’s biggest problems onto a convenient target.
But it kind of worked: Universal has canceled plans to release “The Hunt,” a movie about wealthy one-percenters who pay big bucks to hunt a dozen people dropped into a clearing.
Setting the Trump propaganda spin aside, many well-meaning people have nodded their heads in somber agreement with the decision. After all, maybe this is not the best time for a movie about lunatics with guns, killing innocent people, when the trauma of very real lunatics with guns doing just that in El Paso and Dayton looms large in the public’s memory.
And yet: Is there ever a right time to engage with this subject? After all, “The Hunt” is an adaptation of Richard Cornell’s short story “A Most Dangerous Game,” published in 1924. That should give you an idea of just how much this potent narrative about human-on-human acts of aggression has remained relevant over the years. Violence is one of the touchiest subjects in American culture, and we only empower it by refusing to confront the matter head-on. If Universal, which had already put significant money behind the project, wanted to show real solidarity with the victims, it might consider what sort of message it’s sending by essentially erasing this subject matter from our screens. The studio is risk-averse enough to realize that releasing “The Hunt” could lead to terrible optics — but in this particular case, it’s also letting the bad guys win. There must have been a middle ground on this.
DAVID EHRLICH: I appreciate why this situation put Universal in a bind, and I don't envy the studio's executives for the hard decision they had to make about this movie. But — and I can't stress this enough — I really don't care. They were asked to pay the price for making socially conscious satire in the demented year of our lord 2019, and they refused to foot the bill.
Of course, it's a bit of a leap for me to refer to “The Hunt” as “socially conscious satire,” because — much like Donald Trump and the “Fox & Friends” hosts who talk to him through his television like he's some kind of sub-mental Truman Burbank — I haven't seen “The Hunt,” and couldn't tell you the first thing about what it's really trying to say. Yes, there's a world of difference between Craig Zobel and S. Craig Zahler, and it's hard to imagine that the production company that brought you “Get Out” is suddenly repping for the racists, but the fact of the matter is that the movie itself really doesn't matter. This isn't about sensitivity or inflaming public trauma. It isn't even about saving money on marketing costs or getting ahead of a box office bomb, even if it's hard to imagine why anyone in America would pay $15 to watch people indiscriminately slaughter each other with assault rifles when they already get to see that for free every week.
This is about a major Hollywood studio conceding to a world in which the President of the United States can use the potential threat of White Nationalism — of his own fanbase — as a cudgel with which to exert his influence on the culture. When theater chains refused to play “The Interview,” it was because anonymous internet trolls had threatened to commit acts of terror during screenings, and no sane business would leave themselves vulnerable to that kind of violence. That threat was likely unfounded. This one is not. Universal only made the decision to cancel “The Hunt” in order to seize control of the narrative and prevent theater chains from doing the inevitable. At a time when mass shooters are writing manifestos that are indistinguishable from the President's rally speeches, Universal knew that Trump would have spent the next six weeks pouring gas on the fire.
Releasing “The Hunt” may have been bad for the studio, but cancelling “The Hunt” is bad for everything. Trump, who only cares about results, gets positive reinforcement that he wields more power in a country where everyone is afraid of each other. The media, who only cares about optics, gets to further a wag-the-dog worldview that has turned America into a country that simply breaks the nearest mirror whenever it feels too ugly to look at itself. Remember last week when Walmart responded to the El Paso shooting by banning video game displays, but continuing to sell actual guns? And the masses, who only care about getting through the day in one piece, get to see another opportunity for real change diluted by a petty distraction.
Yes, Universal was in a tough spot. But the problem isn't a movie that shows Americans shooting each other. The problem is a President who encourages it. And until someone makes that clear, the whole country is going to feel like prey.
ERIC KOHN: I think you’re touching on the bigger issue here: Not only is Universal making an odd call with respect to this particular movie in this particular situation; it’s setting an awful precedent. Because movies have the capacity to show us the world in a narrative context, those stories can be reduced to their simplest ingredients by anyone with an agenda. It was all too easy for a rival distributor to sabotage the Oscar campaign for “Zero Dark Thirty” by proclaiming that the movie promoted torture methods. “Depiction is not endorsement,” Kathryn Bigelow pleaded, but it was too late: The movie was vilified.
So it goes with “The Hunt”: Trump is basically hitting on a new tactic for blaming all the world’s problems on the movies. At some point he could even start digging into the past. Fifty years ago, Lindsay Anderson’s “If…” ended with students raging militant war on their campus, and that movie was released by Paramount. And the madness doesn’t have to stop there. What’s Netflix going to do once Trump decides that “The Irishman” glorifies crime?
The big takeaway from all this is that we can’t expect corporate America to fight back. The saving grace of “The Interview” fiasco wasn’t Sony itself stepping up to get the movie out there; it was the communal resolve of art house theaters around the country, who came together to push the movie into a DIY release strategy. And ironically, the headlines associated with that movement elevated “The Interview” in a manner that no marketing plan could manufacture. Pushing back on these pressures turns out to be not just a moral imperative; it’s good business. If Universal can’t see that it, it ought to hand off “The Hunt” to someone who does.
Big picture time: Most movies face an uphill battle to get noticed by anyone at all. One can only hope that all this hubbub draws more attention to the work of “The Hunt” director Craig Zobel, whose “Great World of Sound” and “Compliance” both tackle the complex paradoxes of American identity — the way scam artists so easily prey on good intentions. And that’s certainly what the scam artist in the White House seems to have done here.
The studio's decision came a day after President Trump took aim at the film, saying it was "made to inflame and cause chaos." The story follows a group of elites hunting "deplorables" for sport.
Universal has decided to scrap the release of The Hunt — an R-rated satire in which elites hunt "deplorables" for sport — following a series of mass shootings across the country. The film had been set to hit theaters on Sept. 27.
The studio's Saturday announcement came a day after President Donald Trump took aim at the film — though he didn't name its title — and Hollywood, saying on Twitter, "Liberal Hollywood is Racist at the highest level, and with great Anger and Hate! They like to call themselves “Elite,” but they are not Elite. In fact, it is often the people that they so strongly oppose that are actually the Elite. The movie coming out is made in order to inflame and cause chaos. They create their own violence, and then try to blame others. They are the true Racists, and are very bad for our Country!"
Even before Trump weighed in, the movie sparked an outcry on social media amid the public anger over gun violence and networks entered into the conversation when ESPN pulled an ad for the film that it had previously cleared. Subsequently, Universal pulled all spots.
"While Universal Pictures had already paused the marketing campaign for The Hunt, after thoughtful consideration, the studio has decided to cancel our plans to release the film," the studio said in Saturday's statement. "We stand by our filmmakers and will continue to distribute films in partnership with bold and visionary creators, like those associated with this satirical social thriller, but we understand that now is not the right time to release this film."
The violent movie from producer Jason Blum's Blumhouse Productions follows a dozen individuals who wake up in a clearing and realize they are being stalked for sport by elite liberals.
Directed by Craig Zobel, The Hunt is written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse. The movie stars Betty Gilpin GLOW and Hilary Swank, representing opposite sides of the political divide.
"This was a decision that the studio came to with The Hunt filmmaking team, but ultimately it was about making the right decision, right now. It was a tough call for the company, but studio leadership, led by Donna Langley, all agreed that this film could wait," a studio source said. NBCUniversal's parent company is giant Comcast.
A day after The Hollywood Reporter reported last week that the studio was reevaluating its marketing and overall strategy for the film, the studio officially suspended its marketing campaign.
The trio of mass shootings in Ohio, Texas and California, which resulted in over 30 deaths, have reignited the national debate about gun control.
Universal Pictures has officially decided not to release the upcoming horror/thriller The Hunt this September. The studio had previously stopped running any sort of advertising for the Blumhouse Productions release in the wake of the recent string of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, Dayton, Ohio, and Gilroy, California. Now, the studio has announced they're pulling the plug altogether, leaving the movie's future uncertain. Universal had this to say in a statement.
"While Universal Pictures had already paused the marketing campaign for The Hunt, after thoughtful consideration, the studio has decided to cancel our plans to release the film. We stand by our filmmakers and will continue to distribute films in partnership with bold and visionary creators, like those associated with this satirical social thriller, but we understand that now is not the right time to release this film."
Controversy surrounding The Hunt, which had been set to arrive in theaters on September 27, sprang up following the recent mass shootings, which left dozens dead and many more injured. The movie centers on a group of strangers who wake up to realize they are being hunted for sport by a group of affluent, rich liberals. The inherent violence and political undertones contained within the movie's premise and marketing campaign came under fire and Universal began to rethink its strategy, ultimately deciding to shelve the project in definitely.
Another key factor seems to be criticism from President Donald Trump. Recently, Trump, without specifically naming The Hunt, appeared to be taking aim at the movie and, moreover, liberals in Hollywood. Taking to Twitter, Trump had this to say.
Related: The Hunt Trailer: Humans Are Targeted as Sport in Ultra-Violent Blumhouse Thriller
"Liberal Hollywood is Racist at the highest level, and with great Anger and Hate! They like to call themselves 'Elite,' but they are not Elite. In fact, it is often the people that they so strongly oppose that are actually the Elite. The movie coming out is made in order to inflame and cause chaos. They create their own violence, and then try to blame others. They are the true Racists, and are very bad for our Country!"
Blumhouse Productions is known for producing low-budget horror movies that very regularly go on to earn big dollars at the box office. While the budget may have been relatively low, the production costs coupled with the marketing spend means that Universal will be taking a sizable loss by opting not to release The Hunt. Though, it's possible the studio could opt to release the movie down the line. Or, they could also opt to release it on a streaming service, but that likely wouldn't be for some time.
The cast for the The Hunt includes Betty Gilpin Glow, Hilary Swank Million Dollar Baby, Emma Roberts American Horror Story, Glenn Howerton It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Ike Barinholtz Suicide Squad and Macon Blair Green Room. Craig Zobel Compliance is the director, with the script coming from Nick Cuse The Leftovers and Damon Lindelof Lost. This news was previously reported by The Hollywood Reporter.
....to inflame and cause chaos. They create their own violence, and then try to blame others. They are the true Racists, and are very bad for our Country!
Universal Pictures has canceled the release of director Craig Zobel’s upcoming Blumhouse thriller “The Hunt.” The writing was on the walls when President Donald Trump alluded to the film in one of his latest tweetstorms, in which he fired off at “liberal Hollywood.”
Liberal Hollywood is Racist at the highest level, and with great Anger and Hate! They like to call themselves “Elite,” but they are not Elite. In fact, it is often the people that they so strongly oppose that are actually the Elite. The movie coming out is made in order….
— Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump August 9, 2019
….to inflame and cause chaos. They create their own violence, and then try to blame others. They are the true Racists, and are very bad for our Country!
— Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump August 9, 2019
An adaptation of Richard Connell's 1924 classic man-versus-nature story “The Most Dangerous Game,” the film drops 12 American strangers in a clearing, rudderless and unaware that they're being, literally, hunted for sport by one-percent elitists. Universal had previously put the brakes on marketing the film in the wake of recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, Dayton, Ohio, and Gilroy, California, as the trailer for the film pivots heavily on gun violence and killing among cast members Emma Roberts, Justin Hartley, Glenn Howerton, Betty Gilpin, and Hilary Swank.
“While Universal Pictures had already paused the marketing campaign for ‘The Hunt,’ after thoughtful consideration, the studio has decided to cancel our plans to release the film,” according to a statement from Universal. “We stand by our filmmakers and will continue to distribute films in partnership with bold and visionary creators, like those associated with this satirical social thriller, but we understand that now is not the right time to release this film.”
Allegedly, the screenplay described the Americans who are being hunted for sport as “deplorables,” the term made famous by Hillary Clinton during her campaign for the presidency.
According to Variety, this was not an easy decision, and it was made in cooperation with the filmmakers as well as Universal executive leadership, including studio chief Donna Langley. Given the nature of the film co-written by “The Leftovers” co-creator Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse, “The Hunt” is unlikely to see the light of day, at least theatrically. The film was set to open September 27 across the country. The film’s most probable future is to end up streaming once Comcast launches its service.
IndieWire has reached out to Universal for comment.