Behind Universal's Call to Scrap 'The Hunt': Death Threats, Negative Test Screening Feedback

Universal
A still from Universal's 'The Hunt' trailer.

A politically charged satire denounced by Trump and the right sparked menacing emails as its violent marketing ran squarely into horrific news of a trio of mass shootings.

On the evening of Aug. 6, Universal Pictures held a test screening of its thriller-satire The Hunt at a crowded theater in the San Fernando Valley. It was the second such screening, and some test audience members were again expressing discomfort with the politics of the Jason Blum-produced film, a source familiar with the feedback tells The Hollywood Reporter.

Hunt, directed by Craig Zobel, chronicles a dozen "deplorables" trying to outlast a group of private jet-flying "elites" bent on killing their anti-choice, gun-loving targets. Following a THR story earlier that day on the altering of the film's marketing plan in the wake of a trio of mass shootings, Universal executives and the filmmakers began receiving death threats via email and on social media and immediately paused the campaign altogether.

Sources say the studio's internal security force became involved, but outside law enforcement was not alerted. It appears that Universal did not foresee the maelstrom to come, including round-the-clock Fox News segments and tweets by President Trump seemingly directed at the title.

In the current climate, where one of the mass shooters parroted anti-immigrant talking points of the right in an online manifesto while another espoused violent left-wing ideology, the film formerly titled Red State vs. Blue State seemed to throw a match on gasoline. By Aug. 10, the studio had scrapped the release entirely, leaving its future in limbo (sources in the international film community say they are still interested in releasing it).

It's not clear why the studio agreed to make the $18 million film without toning down or removing the political references, given that other studios passed on the material as too hot-button. Sources say multiple Universal executives had reservations about the project when leaders Jeff Shell and Donna Langley bought it in May 2018.

The studio had kept details of the script by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof secret and didn't feature any of the overt political themes in its marketing materials, even as it advertised the film during Democratic debates and on Tucker Carlson's Fox show.

But had The Hunt hit theaters as planned Sept. 27, the studio and its owner Comcast would have faced an uproar that dwarfed the online vitriol it endured over 2018's First Man, which failed to include Buzz Aldrin planting the American flag on the moon.

Sources say the studio leadership was reluctant to cave to the outrage of those who have not seen the finished film. But the mass shootings changed the calculus, rendering what studio sources believe was a biting satire into a project so toxic, it wasn't worth the headaches. Blum is said to have been on board with the decision to scrap it for now and move forward.

This story first appeared in the Aug. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.