Universal’s The Hunt may be heading towards a Guinness record for the most news coverage ever given to a movie that’s had its marketing campaign cancelled and release date pulled. I haven’t seen it, but I’ll presume that it’s not the specific content of The Hunt that put a target on its back (so to speak), but rather the film’s unfortunate timing in America’s political cycle and increasingly frequent epidemic of mass shootings. The Purge franchise, also distributed by Universal and backed by Blumhouse, has enjoyed four films and counting, along with a TV series, and it pulls no punches when it comes to social commentary, political satire, or wanton violence. So what’s the difference with The Hunt?
Speaking with Variety, director Craig Zobel commented on the film’s troubled path in recent weeks. It feels a little spinny, especially since Zobel is appealing to the “we just wanted to entertain everyone” argument while Universal is simultaneously standing behind their cancellation of the film and touting how well it was received by test audiences. It’s bizarre. But The Hunt isn’t a high-water mark for either side of the political divide or the increasingly divisive entertainment industry, it’s simply a title that got caught in the crossfire.
Here’s what Zobel had to say:
“If I believed this film could incite violence, I wouldn’t have made it … Our ambition was to poke at both sides of the aisle equally. We seek to entertain and unify, not enrage and divide. It is up to the viewers to decide what their takeaway will be … I wanted to make a fun, action thriller that satirized this moment in our culture — where we jump to assume we know someone’s beliefs because of which ‘team’ we think they’re on… and then start shouting at them. This rush to judgment is one of the most relevant problems of our time.”
The issue here is that the sentiment at the heart of the film, at least as Zobel describes it, was, ironically, the very real-world issue that torpedoed the film itself. People had a knee-jerk reaction to something they hadn’t seen in totality and didn’t understand, or even bother taking the time to try to understand. Universal/Blumhouse’s own muddied marketing campaign didn’t really help to clarify what the movie was about, and taking a page out of The Purge playbook looks to have backfired this time.
Zobel did, however, praise Universal for taking a “risk on greenlighting a film not based on prior intellectual property,” and confirmed that the script did not change significantly during production from any sort of top-down pressure, be it studio or political. Zobel also supported the studio’s delay of the film’s release after the early August mass shootings:
“I was devastated by going to sleep to El Paso and waking up to Dayton. These types of moments happen far too often. In the wake of these horrific events, we immediately considered what it meant for the timing of our film. Once inaccurate assumptions about the content and intent of the movie began to take hold, I supported the decision to move the film off its release date.”
Oddly, Universal is still playing the “Actually” game with the film, stressing through a statement that The Hunt was “very well-received” by test audiences “and tallied one of the highest test scores for an original Blumhouse film.” Said test audiences did not express “discomfort with any political discussion in the film,”; Universal also confirmed that the working title was never Red State vs. Blue State.
Zobel’s final thoughts on the state of the film are as follows:
“My hope would be that people will reflect on why we are in this moment, where we don’t have any desire to listen to each other. And if I’m lucky some of us will ask each other: how did we get here? And where do we want to go moving forward?”
That’s a big ask for an American public that seems to be increasingly divided, whether politically, racially, socially, or even, bizarrely, by the entertainment we opt to consume. We’ve become unable to tell the difference between reality and the fiction we watch on screens. These are truly strange times.