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