Universal Studios has canceled the Sept. 27 release of The Hunt, a satirical thriller wherein wealthy Americans hunt “deplorables” for sport.
The tongue-in-cheek film has an ensemble cast that includes Hilary Swank, Justin Hartley, Betty Gilpin, Emma Roberts and Ike Barinholtz, and it comes from Blumhouse Productions, the production company behind social thrillers like Get Out and The Purge and horror films like Paranormal Activity and Insidious.
But the film, written by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof and directed by Craig Zobel, all of whom worked on the HBO series The Leftovers, has caused controversy — both before Universal’s decision to cancel the release, and after.
Zobel and producer Jason Blum, the founder of Blumhouse Productions, both recently spoke out about the film’s controversy.
Here’s what to know about the controversy surrounding The Hunt and its cancellation.
What is The Hunt about?
The Hunt stars Hilary Swank as a leader of the evidently liberal group of wealthy Americans known as “elites” who set out to kidnap and hunt down other citizens known as “deplorables” for fun, according to The Hollywood Reporter (THR).
Twelve people, including characters played by Roberts of American Horror Story, Gilpin of GLOW, Barinholtz of The Mindy Project and This Is Us’ Hartley, wake up in a clearing. “They don’t know where they are, or how they got there,” the movie’s IMDb page says. “They don’t know they’ve been chosen for a very specific purpose — The Hunt.”
When reporting the news on Aug. 6 that some networks were deciding not to run the film’s trailer following recent mass shootings, the Hollywood Reporter shared two lines allegedly from the film’s script. After one character makes an expletive-laden reference to the nation’s president, another finds solace in the upcoming killing game: “At least The Hunt’s coming up. Nothing better than going out to the Manor and slaughtering a dozen deplorables.”
Throughout the film, those being hunted use assault rifles and other weapons in their attempts to defeat the elite and save themselves — Americans described by THR as conservatives. In the trailer, some characters say they hail from red states such as Mississippi, Wyoming and Florida. The film’s original title was “Red State vs. Blue State,” according to THR, but neither Universal nor Blumhouse have confirmed that.
Despite the absence of the word “deplorable” in the film’s marketing materials and trailer, multiple news outlets have reported on it, including Fox News (more on that below).
The term “deplorables” was most famously used as a moniker for the now-president’s base of voters when Hillary Clinton said it while campaigning in 2016: “You could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.” Clinton continued to say that those in the basket were “racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.”
Why did Universal cancel the release of The Hunt?
Universal canceled The Hunt‘s release indefinitely following criticism, including from President Trump, in the wake of two mass shootings that killed 31 people in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, on Aug. 3 and 4, respectively. The studio first pulled the film’s trailers and marketing materials after the shootings, but later decided to cancel the release indefinitely.
The shooter in El Paso said he targeted Mexicans as he killed 22 and injured two dozen others with a semi-automatic gun at a Walmart store in the U.S.-Mexico border city. The Dayton shooter, whose motive has not yet been determined by investigators, killed nine bar patrons in under 30 seconds before being killed by law enforcement.
“While Universal Pictures had already paused the marketing campaign for The Hunt, after thoughtful consideration, the studio has decided to cancel our plans to release the film,” Universal said in a statement shared on the film’s website. “We stand by our filmmakers and will continue to distribute films in partnership with bold and visionary creators, like those associated with this satirical social thriller, but we understand that now is not the right time to release this film.”
In a previous statement on Aug. 8, the studio told TIME that it was “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.”
Officially announced Saturday, the decision to pull the film came immediately after President Trump criticized the movie on Twitter. Though the president did not name the film, he said “Liberal Hollywood is Racist at the highest level” in a tweet on Friday. “The movie coming out is made in order to inflame and cause chaos. They create their own violence, and then try to blame others,” he said.
The president had recently been criticized anew for his anti-immigrant rhetoric, which some say has contributed to a culture of violence and mass shootings. “The threat of white supremacy and white-nationalist terrorism has to be met with the urgency that it demands. And we have not seen that,” 2020 presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke, who represented El Paso in Congress from 2013 until this year, told TIME in a recent interview.
What has the reaction to the cancellation been so far?
Zobel, the film’s director, responded to the cancellation in an interview with Variety on Aug. 19. “Our ambition was to poke at both sides of the aisle equally,” he said. “We seek to entertain and unify, not enrage and divide. It is up to the viewers to decide what their takeaway will be.” The director, known for Compliance and Z for Zachariah, said that the movie’s plot was misunderstood by critics. “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,” he said.
Blum, a producer of the movie, said in an interview with Vulture published on Aug. 16 that he does not regret making the movie. “If I was offered the choice to make the movie again, I would say yes,” he said.
Still, in light of the El Paso and Dayton shootings, Zobel said he agreed with the studio’s decision. “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,” he said.
As Zobel’s comments reflect, some, like Trump, assumed that the movie is anti-conservative, while others felt differently, pointing to its marketing as a satire. Many struggled to discern whether it is the presumed liberals or conservatives who serve as the story’s heroes or villains.
Trump tweeted about the Jason Blum-produced movie soon after Fox & Friends discussed it, and his 2020 campaign’s press secretary tweeted that she was “glad” Universal canceled its release.
“A movie about elites hunting ‘deplorables,'” Kayleigh McEnany said, “and they call it ‘satire!'”
But the conservative news magazine The National Review was not on the same page. “For once, a genre movie was built around an anti-progressive premise,” the magazine said. “President Trump doesn’t have the most finely tuned irony gauge; he seemed unable to understand that the globalists in the film are plainly the bad guys and that the trailer was satirizing rather than saluting the hunters it portrays.”
Atlantic columnist Adam Serwer said in a tweet that the president “misread the right wing politics of an upcoming film as left wing,” resulting in the film’s cancellation.
Those involved with the movie had not made any statements on its cancellation at press time.
Will Universal ever release the film?
The Hunt had a relatively modest budget of $18 million, as compared to films like Avengers: Endgame ($356 million budget) and even Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ($90 million.) It was not clear at press time whether the film would be released at a later date, on video on demand or online. Blumhouse Productions did not release a statement on the cancellation.
Blum told Vulture that he hopes his production company will find a way to release The Hunt. When asked whether there was a chance for a future release, Blum said there was “definitely a chance.” “I hope so,” he said.
What’s happened to other films and shows that have been canceled by tragedies?
The Hunt does not mark the first time that a release has been pulled in the wake of violence. There is precedent, outlined below:
20th Century Fox delayed the release of Phone Booth, a thriller starring Colin Farrell, Forest Whitaker and Katie Holmes, following a series of sniper attacks in D.C. The movie’s premise involves a hidden sniper calling Farrell in a phone booth. Set for release on Nov. 15, 2002, the movie hit theaters on April 4, 2003.
Discovery’s reality series American Guns canceled its plans for a third season after a gunman killed 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Conn. “Discovery Channel chose not to renew the series and has no plans to air repeats of the show,” a spokesperson said in December 17, 2012, three days after the tragedy.
NBC pulled an episode of Hannibal involving mass killings, seemingly in response to the bombing at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. The scenes relevant to the serial drama’s plot were posted online, according to AV Club, while the rest of the episode never aired at all.
American Horror Story: Cult
American Horror Story: Cult aired a re-edited episode about a mass shooting in October 2017, just under a week after the Las Vegas shooting that killed almost 60 people. The scene, which was filmed prior to the shooting, was edited to show the violence off-screen. “In light of the tragedy last week in Las Vegas, Ryan Murphy and the producers of American Horror Story: Cult have chosen to make substantial edits to the opening scene of [Tuesday] night’s episode,” FX said in a statement at the time.
The Carmichael Show
Similarly, The Carmichael Show had delayed the airing of an episode focused on a shooting when it was meant to air the same night a shooter opened fire at a congressional baseball game in 2017, injuring Rep. Steve Scalise. The episode later aired on NBC, the Daily Beast reported.
The television reboot of 1980s cult comedy Heathers was canceled after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2018. “The combination of a high school show with these very dark moments didn’t feel right,” said Keith Cox, president of development and production for Paramount Network in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. The satirical show’s “dark moments” include high school suicides and teachers playing with guns. Paramount later aired the series’ nine episodes online in October of 2018.
Though it wasn’t in response to violent events, several theatrical chains canceled showings of The Interview in 2014 due to threats of violence to theatergoers — after a major hack against Sony Pictures — leading to the studio’s cancellation of the movie’s theatrical release. That film, starring James Franco and Seth Rogen, portrayed fictional journalists on a CIA plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
“We are deeply saddened by this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees and the American public,” Sony said in a statement at the time. “We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome.”
But it didn’t break the bank for Sony. The film was released it on Netflix and pay-per-view, eventually earning $50 million (against a $75 million budget) in digital and home media sales. “Achieving over $40 million in digital sales is a significant milestone,” then-Sony Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton said in a 2015 press release.