The Hunt – Marketing Recap

How Universal is selling a movie with a metric ton of societal baggage attached.

the hunt poster 2There is a lot to say about The Hunt, and a lot that has already been said, including by me. The situation is this:

When a pair of mass shooting incidents happened in less than 24 hours in early August, ESPN pulled ads for the movie from its network citing fears they would be seen as insensitive. That was followed shortly by Universal pausing the entire ad campaign it had begun executing in support of the movie. Just a couple days later the studio took the movie off its release schedule entirely, something the producer and director had some thoughts on, basically that they hope the film would come out at some point, that the story was intended as satire and so on.

So what’s the movie actually about? Betty Gilpin plays Crystal, a woman who, along with several others, wakes up somewhere she doesn’t recognize among people she doesn’t know. What seems disturbing takes a turn for the terrifying when it turns out they are being hunted by other people, elites who kidnap individuals at society’s edges for just this purpose. They try to not only survive but fight back and exact some justice on those who are using them as playthings.

It seems like a decent premise for a societal satire with horror elements, but as the above shows it quickly became seen as an attack on MAGA-types. Hence the drummed-up controversy.

Now that it’s about to hit theaters, tracking estimates a $10 million opening weekend, which isn’t bad given the genre it exists in, even if it shows all that additional earned media and other conversation didn’t translate into increased interest. Still, early reviews have been mostly positive, especially for Gilpin’s performance.

The Posters

Last July brought the release of the first poster (by marketing agency LA), which is designed like a warning sign that’s been posted at the edge of a property. It tells any visitors that hunting season is now open, but that only designated people may be hunted. That’s a twist on the usual message that hunters are the ones requiring licensing or designation.

After the pause in the marketing was lifted, a new poster tells audiences “The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen.” That’s a nice nod to how the controversy around it was sparked by a thin slice of the marketing and an even thinner slice of the actual film. Also nodding in that direction is that the original release date is crossed out and a new one added. Some of the more vitriolic responses to that controversy are plastered around the edge of the poster, a pig at the bottom for…reasons.

The Trailers

The first teaser trailer (since taken down) is actually presented like a commercial for The Manor, where the story and action take place. We hear pleasant narration about how The Manor offers a unique hunting experience, only to see at the very end that experience entails hunting human beings.

Late July brought the first real trailer. It opens as Crystal walks into a general store to ask for help but winds up shooting the proprietors, who were about to kill her. Turns out everything here is a lie, that she and a group of others are being hunted by members of the 1% who pay for the privilege. Crystal keeps surviving even as others are picked off, with the trailer ending on a confrontation between her and Athena, the woman who dreamed up this idea as a way to exert the dominance of the wealthy.

Both of those trailers were taken down from studio channels in August, when the movie was pulled from Universal’s schedule.

The movie is billed as “the most talked about movie of the year” in the trailer (14.8 million views on YouTube) that came out in February, when a new release date was announced. That spot opens with Crystal and the others joining together and arming up to defend themselves against the “liberal elites” that are hunting them for sport. It becomes more apparent as the trailer goes on, though, that the situation may not be what everyone assumes, with Athena saying “It wasn’t real!” and “We were joking” at various times. What is clear is that the story is a satire of social identity, one that likely has a twist not conveyed here.

Online and Social

For a movie this outlandish it’s surprising more isn’t done on the official website. There isn’t even any additional recognition of or attempts to have fun with the delays and other topics, which is a shame.

Advertising and Promotions

In mid-February Universal announced the movie was back on and revealed a release date along with new marketing materials. In that announcement, Lindelof rightly points out that massive assumptions were being made about the movie based on less than five minutes of footage and a vague story description.

Some online advertising has been done, and spots like this have been used as pre-roll and social media ads as well as TV commercials, boiling the story down to its basic elements.

Media and Publicity

The press portion of the campaign never had a chance to get started in 2019 before things went off the rails and the movie was pulled from Universal’s schedule. As the new release date was being announced it started up (in part because of the small window before release). Interviews with Blum and Lindelof had them venting their frustration over the movie being judged without being seen and how they didn’t feel there was much that was controversial about the story.

Another interview with Blum allowed him to share his belief this could be just as big a cultural impact as Get Out was a couple years ago. Zobel shared his relief that the movie was finally coming out in a profile that recapped the developments over the last several months and vented his frustrations at all the twists and turns that have occurred.


Much like the recent Sonic marketing, you can’t judge the campaign along traditional standards given not only how Universal stopped things entirely for several months but that the controversy around the movie has shaded the lens it’s viewed through.

In that way those, like Trump, who vented about a movie they hadn’t seen and had little information on achieved a level of success. They made it impossible to discuss the film or its marketing without acknowledging on some level their arguments and therefore lending them an air of legitimacy.

While Phase 1 of the campaign was interesting – selling the movie well as a class-based comedic satire – Phase 2 was more about playing along with the joke and acknowledging the reality of the situation. That works just as much as it doesn’t, sometimes coming off as too clever by half.

A case could be made that the revived campaign would have been a bit stronger if it had simply ignored the trolls and made its case, continuing the path started in the first wave of marketing. As it is it’s fine and still sells an intriguing film, but one that shows a bit of rust around the edges.

Picking Up The Spare

Additional interviews after the movie hit theaters including Gilpin on finally being given an action role, Zobel on the unintended parallels between the story and its temporary cancelation and Lindelof on how certain individuals drastically misinterpreted the themes of the movie.

There were even more profiles of Gilpin that called out her performance in the movie and her new action-oriented identity.

Another interview with Zobel allows him to explain more clearly how not actively engaging with trolls was a deliberate choice to not enflame the situation unnecessarily.

The Nine Most Compelling Movie Campaigns of 2019’s Second Half

From Once Upon a Time In Hollywood to The Rise of Skywalker and everything in between.

The second half of 2019 ahs seen a number of notable movie releases from some of the biggest names in filmmaking. Downton Abbey was revived for the big screen and new entries in the Zombieland, Rambo and Terminator series hit theaters to varying degrees of success.

Major releases like The Lion King, Frozen 2 and others dominated the mainstream cultural conversation as well as the box office in the last six months thanks to their massive marketing efforts, there are a number of films where the campaigns were even more interesting and noteworthy. Sometimes those campaigns featured a particularly creative execution, sometimes they represented something new being done to reach an interested audience.

So, to follow up on my list of the most compelling movie campaigns from the first half of 2019, here’s the nine that seemed most interesting or innovative to me in the year’s second half.


There have been a number of movies in the last couple years about women determined to exact some pound of flesh from the world that has wronged them. Hustlers is among the most successful of that genre, thanks in part to the lead performance by Jennifer Lopez. What the movie’s marketing campaign did was out Oceans the Oceans movie, especially the recent Ocean’s 8. From the first moment of the campaign, the audience was presented with a neon bright brand that combined women owning their sexuality as exotic dancers with a social message of making the 1% pay for exploiting the poor.

The Hunt

No, the movie has not actually come out. Universal’s curtailed marketing campaign isn’t worth calling out, mostly because it was that campaign that lead to the studio pulling the movie from its release schedule. The planned August release was initially delayed in reaction to the mass shootings in Dayton and El Paso following concerns the ads were insensitive to the news at the time. But at about the same time the campaign came to the attention of right wing media, which felt the story of wealthy elites kidnapping poor people for sport was terribly offensive. That conclusion was reached by ignoring the class warfare story and focusing on how the hunted were demographically more likely to be conservative voters than the rich people doing the hunting. To date there have been no updates on the movie’s status.

Ready Or Not

Released at the same time The Hunt was being nixed, Ready Or Not wound up being one of the year’s surprise box office hits. The movie is about a young bride who, on the night she marries into a family that made its fortune making and selling games, finds out that family is going to hunt her. Only if she survives the night will she be deemed worthy of becoming one of them. The marketing sold it as a ridiculously fun horror outing, filled with slapstick humor and more, all while maintaining a brand identity rooted in dark hardwood tones and gothic symbolism.


Warner Bros. seems to have finally found some kind of groove with its DC-related films following the release of Wonder Woman, Shazam, Aquaman and, most recently, Joker. The movie, one of the most successful of the year so far, was the subject of some of the most intense pre-release debates and conversations in recent memory. That’s largely because of the campaign, with trailers that seemed to present Joker’s backstory as startlingly similar to that of so many of the mass shooters that have plagued society. Before taking on the Joker persona, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is shown as a marginalized struggling comedian angry at the ways the people in his life have failed him. If the movie weren’t set in the 80s he’s the kind of guy who would frequent men’s rights forums. Post-release, it’s made the Bronx staircase Joker dances down a hot spot for Instagrammers, which itself is a statement about the power of the campaign.

Between Two Ferns

between two ferns posterNetflix has released a number of noteworthy films this year (more on that later), but the revival of Zach Galifinakis’ Funny Or Die celebrity interviews as a feature deserves mention not for the undeniable quality of the movie (though it is very funny) but because of the teaser poster. Designed by marketing agency Works Advertising, there’s so much going on with the one sheet it’s hard to keep track.

  1. All the lines of copy, even those right next to each other, are all at slightly different angles.
  2. The “www” in the URL for Netflix is a style that hasn’t been widely used in 15 years or more.
  3. The typeface for the release date and web address are laughably simple, a default style in Microsoft PowerPoint, and not one meant to convey any sort of impact.
  4. The two ferns are obviously the same fern copied and pasted on each side of Galifinakis’ head.
  5. The photo of Galifinakis still bears the Netflix watermark, like it was pulled from a press site and slapped onto the poster.

Overall it conveys a sense of “sure, fine, whatever,” which is completely on-brand for the Between Two Ferns series. It’s so sloppy and one of the best of the year.

The Lighthouse

How do you sell a black and white movie about two men left alone together on a remote New England lighthouse, isolated from the rest of the world and stuck with their own secrets and baggage? By going completely bonkers. The trailer has singing, dancing, axes, mermaids, terror, and Willem Dafoe repeating “Why don’t you spill your beans?” over and over again. With Dafoe and Robert Pattinson as the leads, it says something when a pelican is the only character that gets its own poster. In a move usually reserved for franchises and sequels, A24 also released an iMessage emoji pack so people could add images of angry lighthouse keepers and various sea creatures to their messages.

Knives Out

I truly believe no one had more fun selling their movie this year than director Rian Johnson. After making The Last Jedi, objectively the best Star Wars movie ever, Johnson assembled an all-star cast including Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Daniel Craig and others for Knives Out, an old-fashioned murder mystery. The story is set on a wealthy family’s estate as investigators try to solve the murder of the patriarch, and the campaign not only played up the cast but also the breezy nature of the film. In interviews for the film, Johnson frequently evoked his love of classic movies based on Agatha Christie and other stories. That love was evident in the “A Rian Johnson whodunit” branding featured throughout the campaign and especially in one of the final videos, where the director personally invites audiences to see the movie, a move reminiscent of similar appeals by Hitchcock and other classic filmmakers.

The Irishman

After snagging new films from directors like Joel and Ethan Coen, Steven Soderbergh, Tamara Jenkins and other big names, producing a three hour epic from Martin Scorsese represents Netflix’s biggest conquest to date. To celebrate that milestone the studio/streamer ran a campaign that broke new ground for its original releases, including over a dozen featurettes on every aspect of the film, from the cast to hair and makeup to set design and everything in between. Not only were there teasers but there were trailers timed for the movie’s limited theatrical release and then again for just before it became available for streaming. This is very much the moment Netflix adopted tactics similar to how traditional studios sell movies while still supporting its non-traditional business model.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

It would be negligent to omit Disney’s massive, 8-month long campaign for what has been sold at every turn as the final installment in the Skywalker saga that began 42 years ago. The movie has been positioned as the conclusion to the story that began the first moment Qui-Gon Jinn laid eyes on a young Anakin Skywalker. Along the way the studio has had to thread various needles, appealing to older audiences that remember seeing the Tantive IV being chased by a Star Destroyer on the big screen in 1977 and those whose first experience might have been Poe landing on Jakku as the Resistance searched for a missing Luke Skywalker. With seven key promotional partners all producing their own commercials and campaigns along with other companies doing their own thing, there’s been no avoiding the idea that this is the ultimate event film, one audiences would be negligent in missing.

Honorable Mention: Every Ryan Reynolds Movie

He went method for the Pokemon: Detective Pikachu campaign earlier this year and then managed to put an ad for Aviation Gin inside an ad for his new movie 6 Underground that was inside an ad for Samsung. He’s already selling upcoming projects with the same knowing humor, showing he’s one of the strongest marketing brands around.

While The Hunt Has Been Pulled, Ready Or Not Debuts As Planned

The reasons Universal Pictures ultimately went from suspending the marketing campaign for The Hunt to pulling it from the release schedule entirely have evolved over time. At first it seemed to be because advertising a movie about people being hunted by a group of bored elites looking for a little excitement seemed in bad taste following the recent mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton.

Reports later emerged the studio was shaken by reactions to test screenings of the class-based satire that had already generated death threats and concerns over a broader cultural backlash. Universal’s primary issue appears to be in the handling of the situation, which has put them in the position of being reactive not proactive.

While I don’t agree with the decision – we deserve to debate the movie itself, not have endless discussions that build off the latest Hot Take until the snake has eaten its own tail several times over – it is understandable to some extent. Stories about people being hunted, even if they are satire in nature, may not be received well in an age where aspiring shooters are making kill lists and arming themselves with hundreds of rounds before beginning their own hunting.

So why, one is forced to wonder, is Fox Searchlight continuing as planned with this week’s release of Ready Or Not? Like The Hunt, Ready Or Not revolves around humans hunting other humans.

That movie stars Samara Weaving as Grace, a woman about to marry Alex (Mark O’Brien), part of a family that has made its fortune selling games. At a dinner at the Le Domas family mansion after the wedding, Grace is asked to participate in the tradition of playing a game anytime someone new joins the family. The game turns out to be Ready or Not. What surprises Grace is that this version involves her being hunted by everyone else. Only if she survives until dawn will she be deemed worthy to actually become one of the Le Domas clan.

If there’s any difference between the public presentations of the two movies, it’s that Ready Or Not is not as overtly about class differences. There are no mentions of “deplorables” or “the one percent” or other keywords that are likely to generate headlines and stir up emotions among people who don’t care to be criticized.

Instead, it’s just about a woman being hunted for who she is. That message, it seems, is still acceptable.

It’s surprising, since real world incidents of liberal elites taking out their frustrations on rednecks by hunting them through the woods of a European estate are surprisingly difficult to come across. Startlingly common, though, are instances of mass shooters sporting a history of abusing women or feeling deep-seated anger over having been rejected by women. The shooter who killed so many people in Dayton recently reportedly had a list of women he wanted to kill or rape, presumably because they had wronged him in some imagined way.

That one movie that seemed to have something at least worth considering about class roles has been spiked because it was seen as offensive while another about hunting a women to keep a family bloodline pure and untainted by interlopers moves forward says something about society that we don’t seem to be addressing. Namely, that you can try and kill as many women as you want, but if you dare put anyone who looks like they may have worn a MAGA hat in the crosshairs, there will be hell to pay.

Universal didn’t spontaneously decide to pull The Hunt, it did so in reaction to some reactions and the concern there would be more. A barrage of criticism from Fox News would have been bad for the studio and bad for its corporate parent Comcast. That a similar outcry hasn’t been directed at Fox Searchlight or its corporate parent Disney – recently said to be concerned over the Hitler satire JoJo Rabbit would be too controversial for its audience – is notable.

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.