Universal Pulls The Hunt. The Reason Why Matters.

It seems The Hunt won’t be stalking into theaters anytime soon.

The Hunt was always going to be controversial. The story centers on a woman named Crystal, played by Betty Gilpin, one of 12 strangers who wake up together in the middle of nowhere with no idea how they go there. Slowly they discover they’re being used as sport by a group of One Percenters who let off steam by hunting rednecks and others who don’t share their privilege.

Starting a little over a week ago, Universal Picture’s planned September 27th release for the movie, produced by horror powerhouse studio Blumhouse Productions, went from slightly fuzzy to non-existent. First came the news ESPN had pulled a commercial for the movie from airing, a decision made out of sensitivity to the victims of the two recent shootings in Dayton, OH and El Paso, TX. The next day Universal announced it was suspending the campaign entirely until further notice for the same reason, including pulling the trailer it had released just a few weeks ago from YouTube.

Then over the weekend the studio made public the decision to pull the movie from the release schedule for the time being. At that point the movie’s website was updated to contain a single message to that effect.

The reasons why have…evolved since then. At first it seemed to be just a knee-jerk reaction to the shootings that had just taken place in Dayton and El Paso. Indeed that seems to be the rationale communicated in that statement.

Adding fuel to the fire, President Donald Trump took time away from not enacting gun control legislation to rail against the movie, which he presumably hasn’t seen, saying it is a prime example of Hollywood’s rampant racism, which manifests as anger toward “Elites.”

IndieWire’s Tom Brueggemann has reported the studio made its decision before Trump got wind of things via his daily morning briefing on “Fox and Friends.” It started taking down signage, but didn’t communicate things in a timely manner so appeared to be reacting to that outcry, which is not a good PR look if nothing else. Those machinations may have been spurred by the burgeoning outcry Universal felt building in the wake of test screenings that had enflamed some people and even generated threats. The movie’s politics, it seems, were too much for many.

The trailer for The Hunt – still viewable here – clearly shows it to be societal satire. The idea that a group of wealthy individuals would feel it’s their right to hunt human beings because they “pay for everything” while those being hunted don’t is ludicrous, meant to draw overly dramatic lines between groups to highlight real issues such as income inequality and access to resources.

Universal’s decision to at least delay the movie’s release is not unprecedented. Warner Bros. pumped the brakes on putting the comedy Big Trouble and the action-filled Collateral Damage in theaters in the wake of the 9/11/01 attacks because both contained terrorism-based storylines. Other films like Men in Black 2 had scenes showing the World Trade Centers altered. The campaign for the first Spider-Man movie was dramatically changed after an initial teaser showed Spidey swinging between the WTC towers.

Other movies and TV show episodes have been delayed or pulled because of mass shootings, bombings and other tragedies because the subject matter was too close to the events of the real world. These almost always wind up being rescheduled at some point, because enough time is felt to have passed.

What’s most shocking about the decision by Universal in this case is that it’s made exactly the opposite call in the past.

On June 12, 2016, 50 people were killed in a shooting at the Orlando, FL nightclub Pulse. Just three weeks later Universal and Blumhouse put The Purge: Election Night in theaters. Like the previous and subsequent movies in the Purge franchise, it centers on a world where for one night each year all criminal activity – including murder – is legal. That purge of people’s darkest impulses is meant to keep society safe the rest of the year. Other entries in the series have also come shortly after mass shootings that have rocked the nation and prompted discussions of gun laws.

How could they not? Since 2014, the United States has averaged 334 mass shootings a year. At that rate it would be impossible to find a single day, much less a weekend, in which enough time had passed since the last incident to be properly respectful of those killed or injured as well as their friends and family.

It used to be that brands would frequently pause their marketing efforts in the wake of national tragedy. On more than one occasion in my own career I was the one recommending to a client that social media publishing and other activities by put on hold because of such events. For a time it was a best practice throughout the industry, though paid campaigns were harder to pull down because of the logistics involved.

Such practices would be nie impossible to put in place today. The frequency with which they occur would mean no brand would ever post to social media ever again because it was too soon.

For Universal there’s no clear winning strategy. If it had continued to march toward the planned release date and kept the campaign going the media conversation would have been dominated by questions about violence in movies inspiring violence in the real world. If it resumes the campaign after a few months – dumping it in January seems likely – it risks having the same issues come up.

The best the studio can likely hope for is to quietly sneak the movie to VOD and hope President Trump doesn’t notice, lest it once more become the target of his ire, a convenient moment to distract from whatever embattles him at that moment in which he can lob the same accusations that have been leveled against him.

If history is any indicator, there are few positive outcomes awaiting the movie. Those delayed following the 9/11 attacks all fared poorly because they had lost whatever momentum they had and those weren’t the kinds of stories people wanted to watch at the time. Even those that came out as planned suffered because the round-the-clock news coverage didn’t lend itself to lots of commercials for upcoming films.

In that case, studios could be fairly certainly their plans would not be impacted by another terrorist attack on the magnitude of what happened then. Now, when the tragedies are of a smaller scale but happen nearly daily, there isn’t nearly the kind of clear field for them to take advantage of.

So three options are present for studios en masse going forward: 1) Realize that this is the new reality and go forward regardless of events, 2) Drastically change the movies being made to eliminate not just overtly violent stories but also, apparently, satire, or 3) Lobby the government to enact gun control laws that would make violent actions like what happen across the country every day a thing of the past so they can produce and distribute whatever movies they want free from concern of actions being imitated or deemed offensive.

The fourth option – treat everything as if it’s a brand new scenario that had not been considered previously – is what Universal seems to have put in play here, but it’s not sustainable.

Some have argued Universal was right to make the decision it did. Personally, I find the idea of pre-release self-censorship on the part of studios to be more troubling than justifiable. Even if the movie is controversial or shocking in some manner, it’s more reasonable to have that conversation based on the entire film, not the three minutes or so that have been shown in trailers and other promotions. Right now we’re basing all of this on very little, with commentary about the commentary that was based on previous commentary which recounted someone’s opinion. That’s not sustainable, even if it is indicative of our current media landscape.

For now The Hunt is cancelled. If it’s ever revived it will be the subject of intense scrutiny, including several hundred hot takes and maybe even another presidential declaration. What future it has is pure speculation, but the issues in play over the last week will come up again, just with a different movie.

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