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Exclusive: Universal’s Decision to Cancel ‘The Hunt’ Release Was Made Before Trump Criticism

The studio had already made the decision to pull the film even before the President started tweeting about it.

“The Hunt”

Screenshot

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 although 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.

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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.

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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.

Betty Gilpin in "The Hunt"

Betty Gilpin in “The Hunt”

Universal Pictures

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.

"Dr. Strangelove"

“Dr. Strangelove”

FilmStruck / Criterion Collection

“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 halt 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.

Eric Kohn contributed to this report.

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