As evidenced by the brand new trailer, The Hunt is finally making its way into theaters after a 2019 marketing campaign that included a summer high and then a crushing low. The satirical action thriller seemed right up Blumhouse’s alley when trailers first started popping up attached to Crawl last summer. From writer-producer Damon Lindelof, co-writer Nick Cuse, and director Craig Zobel (The Leftovers), The Hunt was being described as an action-thriller that “involves a group of elites who gather for the very first time at a remote Manor House to hunt humans for sport.” Could this be another horror mega franchise like The Purge for Blumhouse and Universal? That’s what it looked like when the first teaser was released, and it was a scenario that seemed even more likely when the trailer dropped online later in the month and got everyone buzzing.
However, in August, an all-too-common tragedy struck and it led Universal to push pause on marketing the movie ahead of its planned September 27th release. In the wake of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, Dayton, Ohio and Gilroy, California, the studio stated, “Out of sensitivity to the attention on the country’s recent shooting tragedies, Universal Pictures and the filmmakers of The Hunt have temporarily paused its marketing campaign and are reviewing materials as we move forward.”
While pausing the promotional push most certainly made sense, things then intensified in an unusual way when President Trump opted to weigh in with his thoughts on the matter. In a pair of tweets he wrote, “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!” The next day, Universal Pictures cancelled the release of The Hunt.
From there, think pieces flooded the internet raising a slew of very valid questions: Is there ever a good time to release such a violent movie like this anymore? Was the decision to cancel the release made in direct response to the President’s tweets? Does that set a terrible precedent? Right after the announcement was made, I wrote, “While I may take a pass on certain material that taps into timely, upsetting matters every now and then, I would rather have that choice than have a studio make it for me.” (Or the President for that matter.)
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a small screening of The Hunt along with a group of other reporters, with Lindelof and producer Jason Blum on hand to answer some questions about their new promotional strategy for the film. But before moving forward, Lindelof looked back and told us that at the time, he was surprised to see his movie deemed “controversial,” especially when no one had even seen the finished film. “Having seen it play in test screenings, it was just completely and totally beyond my understanding that the movie was controversial or provocative or third rail.” He added, “In my brain it always felt so over the top and absurd that it was entering into a dangerous space, you know, or a controversial space, that just completely threw me for a loop.”
At the time, Lindelof had just been coming off successful test screenings for the movie. Blum told us that The Hunt scored very well and when it came to the audience response, “none of the conversations that happened with people who had not seen the movie happened with people who had seen the movie.” When the decision was made to take The Hunt off the schedule, Blum found all of the judgment from people without having seen the movie frustrating. And even worse, he wasn’t able to defend the film and say, “Well, wait and see.” He explained, “We had to balance our frustration with what was the route to pursue to get the movie out, so we had to bite our tongues until now.”
Universal has officially put the film back on the calendar and released a new trailer and poster to go along with the big announcement. You can watch that trailer right here and see the film in full when it hits theaters nationwide on March 13th. This decision spawned a whole new slew of questions: Why now? What’s changed? How are they going to set the record straight on what this film is really about? Let’s get into it.
Even though we’re first hearing about the new release date, Blum explained that those conversations began right after the cancellation, “We started to talk about it right away and how we would do it and how we would change the marketing and all of that stuff.” While there was talk of a potential festival debut, conversations about SXSW and Fantastic Fest never progressed, and Blum didn’t think the Toronto International Film Festival was the best fit. And while a streaming release was a possibility, Blum said, “I don’t know how you could better define a theatrical event than this movie. So it was never pursued or discussed with any seriousness.”
But perhaps even more important than the actual release date of the film is the new tone of the marketing campaign. If you caught that first trailer that dropped in July 2019, nothing about it really said satirical action thriller. And that’s likely where a lot of the misconceptions about the final product—sight unseen—came from. And now having seen the movie myself, I can confirm that. The Hunt is a high-energy, very violent but playful satire. It’s not a movie that screams, “This side is good and this side is bad,” but rather shows two groups who only operate in extremes and turn to violence rather than civil conversation and understanding. Lindelof was actually inspired by how Get Out first raised the bar; “I’m not just saying this because Jason is sitting next to me but I loved Get Out and I sort of felt like, ‘Wow, this is really elevated genre.’ The fact that the movie is simultaneously a horror movie that’s really scary and social commentary and it has laughs in it.”
After Lindelof and Cuse finished up The Leftovers and before starting Watchmen, the pair wondered, “If we were to make a Jason Blum movie, what would it be?” A conversation about conspiracy theories led to them consider, “As writers, wouldn’t it be fun to write a crazy conspiracy theory just to see if anybody believed it? And then we were like, ‘Oh, that could be potentially scary,’ because what if someone out there made it true?” That thought ultimately became The Hunt, a story that Lindelof thought needed both his and Cuse’s touch. “Myself, as a progressively minded individual, I can’t speak for Nick. Nick is an independent, doesn’t want to be labeled as anything.” Lindelof continued, “I know what offends me and upsets me. I know what I find amusing. So I’m gonna make fun of myself because that’s the space that I’m the most comfortable in, and hopefully we’ll achieve that level of balance that you’re talking about in doing so.”
While trying to imagine the response to the film come March 13th, Lindelof said:
“I don’t think that the response to the movie is that it’s going to be provocative, you know? I don’t think that people are going to be picketing this movie or saying that this movie is dangerous or harmful. And that feels like it was the narrative the first time around before anybody had seen it. But I’ve been surprised before. It’s possible that people will see this movie and say, ‘It’s irresponsible,’ or ‘It’s a call to violence.’ And I want to be in dialogues with those people because I think I want to understand that better because I think that everybody in the movie who is extreme and advances extreme positions and stereotypes about the other side, they get their comeuppance. And the one character in the movie who doesn’t identify that way is the one left standing. And so the morality of the movie has always felt very clean to us, which is don’t operate from the extremes and maybe have conversations with one another versus jump to conclusions. But I may be oversimplifying it.”
Right now it’s about reflecting that in the marketing campaign. Lindelof said, “This is not about mistakes being made or course corrections or damage control in so much as the movie was always meant to be absurdist.” He further explained:
“And so this idea of like, we watched the movie play with audiences, sometimes it gets big laughs in unexpected places. I don’t know if they’re relief laughs or because something overtly comedic has happened. I don’t know where laughs are gonna play for every specific audience. But I think that the sense of play, the sense of absurdity, the over the top-edness of the movie were not being reflected the first time around, which is why it’s easier to understand what happened given its proximity to real world events. The more heightened we sell the movie, the more reflective I think of the movie that we made is. And so the materials are gonna reflect that.”
Not only did Universal and Blumhouse face the challenge of pivoting the tone of the marketing, but they also had to figure out how to do that without pretending that the fall campaign never happened. Blum broke it down; “I think the marketing conversation went more like this; you can’t have had happen what happened and pretend it didn’t happen. So I think the marketing conversation was more like, let’s acknowledge what happened here.” And that’s certainly what they did in the new poster which says, “The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen,” in big bold red letters right smack in the middle of the image which is also peppered with quotes documenting the controversy.
On top of that, this is how the new official film synopsis ends: “From Jason Blum, the producer of Get Out and The Purge series, and Damon Lindelof, creator of the HBO series Watchmen and co-creator of the TV series Lost, comes a timely and provocative new satirical thriller that has already ignited a national conversation. Now, it’s time to decide for yourself.” That last little bit has been all I’ve asked for ever since the film’s cancellation last year.