Over the weekend, Universal announced that it would be canceling the release of “The Hunt,” an upcoming thriller produced by Blumhouse, due to a storyline involving shooters that was deemed inappropriate following mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in which at least 31 people were killed. In a statement, the studio said, “Now is not the time to release this film.” In response to the decision, IndieWire’s Eric Kohn and David Ehrlich traded thoughts on the decision.
ERIC KOHN: It’s 2019. Don’t the movies have enough to worry about? Declining box office and the looming shadow of the streaming wars have put the medium on edge; now, it’s being scapegoated by the so-called leader of the free world. Of course, Donald Trump’s moronic tweet-storm in which he singled out “The Hunt” as an example of “liberal Hollywood” attempting to “inflame and cause chaos” is just another means of deflection, an attempt to cast the nation’s biggest problems onto a convenient target.
But it kind of worked: Universal has canceled plans to release “The Hunt,” a movie about wealthy one-percenters who pay big bucks to hunt a dozen people dropped into a clearing.
Setting the Trump propaganda spin aside, many well-meaning people have nodded their heads in somber agreement with the decision. After all, maybe this is not the best time for a movie about lunatics with guns, killing innocent people, when the trauma of very real lunatics with guns doing just that in El Paso and Dayton looms large in the public’s memory.
And yet: Is there ever a right time to engage with this subject? After all, “The Hunt” is an adaptation of Richard Cornell’s short story “A Most Dangerous Game,” published in 1924. That should give you an idea of just how much this potent narrative about human-on-human acts of aggression has remained relevant over the years. Violence is one of the touchiest subjects in American culture, and we only empower it by refusing to confront the matter head-on. If Universal, which had already put significant money behind the project, wanted to show real solidarity with the victims, it might consider what sort of message it’s sending by essentially erasing this subject matter from our screens. The studio is risk-averse enough to realize that releasing “The Hunt” could lead to terrible optics — but in this particular case, it’s also letting the bad guys win. There must have been a middle ground on this.
DAVID EHRLICH: I appreciate why this situation put Universal in a bind, and I don’t envy the studio’s executives for the hard decision they had to make about this movie. But — and I can’t stress this enough — I really don’t care. They were asked to pay the price for making socially conscious satire in the demented year of our lord 2019, and they refused to foot the bill.
Of course, it’s a bit of a leap for me to refer to “The Hunt” as “socially conscious satire,” because — much like Donald Trump and the “Fox & Friends” hosts who talk to him through his television like he’s some kind of sub-mental Truman Burbank — I haven’t seen “The Hunt,” and couldn’t tell you the first thing about what it’s really trying to say. Yes, there’s a world of difference between Craig Zobel and S. Craig Zahler, and it’s hard to imagine that the production company that brought you “Get Out” is suddenly repping for the racists, but the fact of the matter is that the movie itself really doesn’t matter. This isn’t about sensitivity or inflaming public trauma. It isn’t even about saving money on marketing costs or getting ahead of a box office bomb, even if it’s hard to imagine why anyone in America would pay $15 to watch people indiscriminately slaughter each other with assault rifles when they already get to see that for free every week.
This is about a major Hollywood studio conceding to a world in which the President of the United States can use the potential threat of White Nationalism — of his own fanbase — as a cudgel with which to exert his influence on the culture. When theater chains refused to play “The Interview,” it was because anonymous internet trolls had threatened to commit acts of terror during screenings, and no sane business would leave themselves vulnerable to that kind of violence. That threat was likely unfounded. This one is not. Universal only made the decision to cancel “The Hunt” in order to seize control of the narrative and prevent theater chains from doing the inevitable. At a time when mass shooters are writing manifestos that are indistinguishable from the President’s rally speeches, Universal knew that Trump would have spent the next six weeks pouring gas on the fire.
Releasing “The Hunt” may have been bad for the studio, but cancelling “The Hunt” is bad for everything. Trump, who only cares about results, gets positive reinforcement that he wields more power in a country where everyone is afraid of each other. The media, who only cares about optics, gets to further a wag-the-dog worldview that has turned America into a country that simply breaks the nearest mirror whenever it feels too ugly to look at itself. (Remember last week when Walmart responded to the El Paso shooting by banning video game displays, but continuing to sell actual guns?) And the masses, who only care about getting through the day in one piece, get to see another opportunity for real change diluted by a petty distraction.
Yes, Universal was in a tough spot. But the problem isn’t a movie that shows Americans shooting each other. The problem is a President who encourages it. And until someone makes that clear, the whole country is going to feel like prey.
ERIC KOHN: I think you’re touching on the bigger issue here: Not only is Universal making an odd call with respect to this particular movie in this particular situation; it’s setting an awful precedent. Because movies have the capacity to show us the world in a narrative context, those stories can be reduced to their simplest ingredients by anyone with an agenda. It was all too easy for a rival distributor to sabotage the Oscar campaign for “Zero Dark Thirty” by proclaiming that the movie promoted torture methods. “Depiction is not endorsement,” Kathryn Bigelow pleaded, but it was too late: The movie was vilified.
So it goes with “The Hunt”: Trump is basically hitting on a new tactic for blaming all the world’s problems on the movies. At some point he could even start digging into the past. Fifty years ago, Lindsay Anderson’s “If…” ended with students raging militant war on their campus, and that movie was released by Paramount. And the madness doesn’t have to stop there. What’s Netflix going to do once Trump decides that “The Irishman” glorifies crime?
The big takeaway from all this is that we can’t expect corporate America to fight back. The saving grace of “The Interview” fiasco wasn’t Sony itself stepping up to get the movie out there; it was the communal resolve of art house theaters around the country, who came together to push the movie into a DIY release strategy. And ironically, the headlines associated with that movement elevated “The Interview” in a manner that no marketing plan could manufacture. Pushing back on these pressures turns out to be not just a moral imperative; it’s good business. If Universal can’t see that it, it ought to hand off “The Hunt” to someone who does.
Big picture time: Most movies face an uphill battle to get noticed by anyone at all. One can only hope that all this hubbub draws more attention to the work of “The Hunt” director Craig Zobel, whose “Great World of Sound” and “Compliance” both tackle the complex paradoxes of American identity — the way scam artists so easily prey on good intentions. And that’s certainly what the scam artist in the White House seems to have done here.
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