Even if you’re not a horror-film fanatic, you’ve heard about The Hunt. A grisly-looking, modern grindhouse film, it was supposed to come out through Universal Pictures at the end of September. The plot was said to feature wealthy liberals — as portrayed by Hilary Swank’s well-dressed villain — who kidnap jus’-folks types and put them into a forested compound where they’re picked off one by one. Originally titled, per The Hollywood Reporter, Red State vs. Blue State, the movie seems to boast a comparable mixture of paranoia, political topicality and pulp fiction and is produced by Blumhouse, Hollywood’s finest purveyor of smart, low-budget scary movies such as the Oscar-winning social satire Get Out and the Purge franchise.
But The Hunt is most likely on your radar because it might never get a chance to see the light of day. That’s because Universal, the Comcast-owned studio that produced the film, abruptly canceled its release after President Donald Trump angrily tweeted about it last Sunday. The president, almost assuredly egged on by Fox News’ drum-beating, decided to sound off on the movie — even though he, like the rest of us, hasn’t seen it. Acting like an angry fanboy, the kind that has little information about an upcoming project but just knows they’re mad anyway, our commander-in-chief found it prudent to render a verdict sight-unseen.
“Liberal Hollywood is Racist at the highest level, and with great Anger and Hate!” he tweeted on August 9th. “They like to call themselves ‘Elite,’ but they are not 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!” Trump chose to see The Hunt as an attack on MAGA voters — you know, real Americans — and thus inflamed anger against a film that had released all of one trailer to that point.
In a sane society, we wouldn’t have a president sounding off on something as minor as an action-horror movie like it was a major catastrophe. And we also wouldn’t have a studio do what Universal did in response, which was surrender. “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 company said in a statement on August 10th. “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.”
There are reasonable motivations to call a time out. In the wake of other mass shootings and tragedies, the unveiling of films and TV shows has been pushed back — everything from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2002 thriller Collateral Damage to Ryan Phillippe’s USA series Shooter — in a desire to be sensitive to still-fresh atrocities. Maybe if it had merely been in response to the deadly shootings in El Paso and Dayton, the studio’s decision would have been understandable — thoughtful, even. Respectful restraint is welcome at certain moments.
But what makes Universal’s disappearing of The Hunt so chilling is that those shootings probably aren’t what ultimately goaded the executives into taking such drastic action. It’s hard not to think that Trump’s invective, which can work like a Bat-Signal for his most devoted followers, created the very real scenario of possible violence at public screenings. Never mind that, as National Review film critic Kyle Smith put it, “President Trump doesn’t have the most finely tuned irony gauge; he seemed unable to understand that the globalists in the film are plainly the bad guys and that the trailer was satirizing rather than saluting the hunters it portrays.” The simple fact is that if the president misreads the film’s possible angle — if he doesn’t understand that it’s a satire that might actually try to put non-elites in a positive light — and decides to lash out, his actions can have extreme, and deadly, consequences. Universal isn’t merely postponing the release. The studio is trying to pretend the movie never existed. (The Hunt‘s website has been scrubbed like it’s a biohazard.)
Maybe the movie will end up on Netflix. Maybe Universal will give it a small theatrical release and push it onto VOD simultaneously, like the way Sony handled the 2014 Kim Jong-un comedy The Interview. Whatever ultimately happens to The Hunt, however, the studio brass has decided it’s not worth the headache. And for artists and moviegoers alike, that’s the problem.
Superhero flicks, Star Wars sequels, Disney live-action reimaginings, Pixar films: These are the properties Hollywood pledges allegiance to, in the hopes of netting close to a billion dollars with each new installment. And when blockbusters do cause a stir — like when there was a shooting in a Colorado theater that showed The Dark Knight Rises — a movie of that magnitude isn’t getting canceled. There’s too much money invested, too many careers at stake. In that case, the show must go on. But at a time when fewer and fewer risks are being taken by the major studios, Universal’s decision doesn’t just feel like cowardice but rank expediency. Maybe The Hunt would have made a tidy profit — Blumhouse films usually do — but, apparently, the upside for an action-thriller with few big names, a generic title and a familiar premise wasn’t worth it. (As more than one commentator has pointed out, wait ’til Trump and his minions find out about “The Most Dangerous Game,” published almost 100 years ago and the inspiration for dozens of movies, including The Hunt and the upcoming horror movie Ready or Not.)
And Universal shouldn’t pretend it “stand[s] by our filmmakers and will continue to distribute films in partnership with bold and visionary creators.” The brouhaha was their opportunity to prove who it stands behind, and it whiffed spectacularly. It’s not as if they didn’t know what it was getting into by making the film: Last year, the studio won a competitive auction to land the rights to the spec script written by Lost and Leftovers mastermind Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse, the son of fellow Lost showrunner Carlton Cuse. It then tapped indie provocateur Craig Zobel (Compliance, Z for Zachariah) to direct. If Universal had the guts to honor “bold and visionary creators” a year ago, there’s no reason to stop now.
But what’s most upsetting is that the film can’t even defend itself. Since no critics or journalists have seen The Hunt — the best the Hollywood Reporter could do was read a copy of the script and talk to studio insiders who had watched a cut — all of us, up to and including the president, are just speculating. Films aren’t judged by their prerelease hype — they’re judged by the quality of the actual work. Whether it’s a third-rate Purge rip-off or the second coming of Dr. Strangelove, we’ll never know because Universal has buried it — and in the process, created a dangerous precedent.
Movies have to be bigger than one president, or one ideology. They tell us about what’s going on around us — responding to and sometimes influencing national and global events. They’re an imperfect but crucial barometer of who we are, what we fear and what we aspire to be. They show us up there on the screen, and then they let us sort out what to make of the whole thing.
The Hunt deserves that same chance, as do dozens of other movies that might offend your parents, a school board, a foreign government or the President of the United States of America. Last week, Swank was asked about the controversy surrounding the movie. “[N]o one’s seen the film,” she said. “You can’t really have a conversation about it without understanding what it’s about.” Audiences just want that opportunity. More than ever, we need those conversations instead of hunting around for reasons to shut down the dialogue.