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“Did anyone see what our ratfucker-in-chief just did?” one character asks early in the screenplay for The Hunt, a Universal Pictures thriller set to open Sept. 27. Another responds: “At least The Hunt’s coming up. Nothing better than going out to the Manor and slaughtering a dozen deplorables.”
In the aftermath of mass shootings within days of one another that shocked and traumatized the nation, Universal is re-evaluating its strategy for the certain-to-be-controversial satire. The violent, R-rated film from producer Jason Blum’s Blumhouse follows a dozen MAGA types who wake up in a clearing and realize they are being stalked for sport by elite liberals.
Over the Aug. 3 weekend, ESPN pulled an ad for the film that it had previously cleared, while AMC ran the spot during the season premiere of its drama The Preacher. It’s unclear whether the ads were identical, but the one yanked by ESPN opened with a sound resembling an emergency broadcast signal. A rep for ESPN parent Disney declined to comment on the move, but an ESPN source says no spots for the film will appear on the network in the coming weeks.
The Hunt stars Betty Gilpin from GLOW and Hilary Swank, representing opposite sides of the political divide. It features guns blazing along with other ultra-violent killings as the elites pick off their prey. The script from Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse reviewed by The Hollywood Reporter revolves around third-rail political themes. (Original title: Red State Vs. Blue State.)
A studio source says that even before the recent attacks, which left 34 dead in El Paso, Texas; Dayton, Ohio; and Gilroy, California, some reshoots were done based on a recent rough cut. Universal and Blumhouse declined to comment.
While one high-level Universal source says the studio has pulled some ads that are beginning to air and appear online “for content and placement,” others say the matter is still under discussion internally. A major ad blitz on television and the web had been planned for the beginning of September, says one insider. A trailer is already online.
Given the fraught political climate — particularly in the wake of the attack in El Paso, which was motivated by anti-immigrant bigotry — studio sources say Universal is evaluating its plans in what one called “a fluid situation.” A high-level insider says top executives want to stand by Blum, one of the studio’s most prolific and successful producers, as well as filmmaker Craig Zobel, and see the project as a satire addressing an issue of great social importance. But this person says plans could change “if people think we’re being exploitative rather than opinionated.”
From a business perspective, The Hunt presents a gamble for Universal in these divided times. The satire Assassination Nation, which also pitted the woke versus the unwoke in uber-violent fashion, represented the top sale at Sundance 2018 at $10 million. But the film fizzled upon its release later that year, earning just $2 million with no international rollout. Says one person involved with that film, “We thought people would get the joke.”
The Hunt made some executives at Universal skittish back in May 2018, when film chief Donna Langley acquired the script and fast-tracked it at a modest $18 million budget. It is unclear whether there were any other bidders on the property, the sale of which was brokered by CAA, but insiders at several studios told THR at the time that they did not pursue it because of the explosive premise. One executive says he didn’t even read the script, noting, “The idea seemed crazy.”
This is not the first time a studio has been faced with real-life events that rendered a film release more complicated. Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for example, Warner Bros. moved back the Arnold Schwarzenegger starrer Collateral Damage and abandoned a trailer that featured a bomb attack in the U.S. The 2017 Death Wish remake was delayed several months in response to a mass shooting in Las Vegas. And Oliver Stone’s 1994 satire Natural Born Killers was criticized for inspiring copycat killings.
Certainly, satire can be a dicey genre for studios to pull off. Just ask Sony, which became the target of a 2014 hack blamed on the North Koreans over the Seth Rogen comedy The Interview.
The script for The Hunt features the red-state characters wearing trucker hats and cowboy shirts, with one bragging about owning seven guns because it’s his constitutional right. The blue-state characters — some equally adept with firearms — explain that they picked their targets because they expressed anti-choice positions or used the N-word on Twitter. “War is war,” says one character after shoving a stiletto heel through the eye of a denim-clad hillbilly.
“Employees in different departments were questioning the wisdom of making such a movie in these times,” says one filmmaker with ties to Universal. “In light of the horrific [recent shootings], is this not the most craven, irresponsible, dangerous exploitation?”
That point is countered by a Universal executive, who says the movie “is meant to show what a stupid, crazy world we live in,” adding, “It might even be more powerful now.”
Marisa Guthrie contributed to this report.
This story appears in the Aug. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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James Gordon Meek