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Why Universal Pictures pulled its upcoming horror movie The Hunt

Just how central was Trump to the studio’s reasons for yanking the movie from its schedule?

The Hunt is a movie about the rich hunting so-called “deplorables.”
Betty Gilpin stars in The Hunt.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Universal Pictures has pulled the release of The Hunt, which was scheduled to come out September 27. In a statement on the movie’s website, the studio said that this is not “the right time” for the film to be released, especially considering the recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Marketing for the film had already been suspended due to the gun violence depicted in it.

The Hunt is a spin on The Most Dangerous Game — the story where a rich guy hunts people for sport — for our politically fraught times. According to this Hollywood Reporter piece, it is set in a world where “liberal elites” hunt Trump voter types for sport, having selected their prey based on the horrible opinions the targets shared on social media. Its working title was Red State, Blue State, to give you a further sense of its central concerns.

All involved with the movie have dubbed it a satire, but some on the right have taken it deadly seriously, despite having only seen a trailer.

You might still get to see The Hunt someday. In fact, you probably will.

The Hunt may yet see the light of day, despite the current release being “canceled.” It’s not uncommon for movies and TV shows that are delayed for political reasons, or because of unfortunate similarities to news events, to be released months later when the furor has died down a bit. It’s also not uncommon for these movies to surface on video-on-demand or streaming platforms.

For instance, The Interview, pulled from theaters in 2014 after political pressure from North Korea, showed up on VOD after Sony Pictures, the studio that released that movie, faced criticism for seemingly having buckled to the demands of an authoritarian government.

And certainly other pieces of entertainment have been pulled in the wake of mass shootings and other acts of gun violence in the 20 years since Columbine, ranging from two Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes to the thriller Phone Booth to the first-season finale of Mr. Robot. All of these were released later, so if Universal’s stated reasoning for delaying The Hunt holds, that movie will presumably be released soon as well.

One potential hurdle here is that the sheer number of mass shootings make it all but impossible to find a release window for any movie featuring a similar scenario, even an over-the-top one presented as satire.

The Comedy Central show Alternatino, for instance, recently delayed a sketch involving gun violence because of the mass shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival in California — only to ultimately decide to air it a week later in the wake of the El Paso and Dayton shootings because it could simply never guarantee that there would be a week without mass shootings.

(Brief pause to note that in the wake of these recent mass shootings, the most forthright responses have been from Walmart, which removed in-store promotions of violent video games and movies but which continues to sell guns, and movie studios.)

There’s another twist here, too, which is that of all the movies that feature gun violence coming out in the near future or already in theaters, only The Hunt has been shelved for now. Universal, for instance, just released the very gun-happy Hobbs & Shaw to theaters, and you can probably think of dozens of other recent and upcoming movies that feature more guns than you can shake a stick at. So why this movie? Why now?

Would you believe it has to do with President Trump?

Trump subtweeted The Hunt recently — we think. But whatever his read of the movie, it appears to be inaccurate.

What makes the situation with The Hunt particularly unsettling isn’t the stated reason for Universal pulling the film, but the fact that President Trump may or may not have been tweeting about the movie the day before its release was canceled.

Trump attacked a movie that he did not name, writing, “The movie coming out is made in order to inflame and cause chaos. They create their own violence, and then try to blame others. They are the true Racists, and are very bad for our Country!” (The same day, he also made remarks to the press about Hollywood’s purported racism.)

Trump never clarified what he meant — and by “clarified,” we mean “told anybody what movie he was talking about” — when discussing how racist Hollywood was, but a segment on Laura Ingraham’s show on Fox News about The Hunt seemed a likely culprit for spurring his ire. (Reading Trump’s Twitter feed sometimes is like being on Twitter during the Game of Thrones finale if you didn’t watch that show, but substitute “a steady diet of Fox News programming” for “Game of Thrones finale.”)

The irony of this line of anger is that before Ingraham and other corners of the right-wing mediasphere got ahold of The Hunt, it was mostly being decried (on social media, at least) from the left, due to the way the trailer seems to set up a version of The Most Dangerous Game where the good guys — a.k.a. the people being hunted, whom our sympathies naturally attach to in such a scenario — are the sorts of people who would wear MAGA hats.

From this point of view, the movie could be seen as an incredibly heightened but clumsy spin on the idea that our political differences could be ironed out if we’d just listen to each other. (Not helping matters: The only black person in the trailer is one of the elites hunting the MAGA types.)

Now, the natural caution is this is just a piece of movie marketing. Movie trailers, particularly for horror movies like The Hunt, are designed to give away just enough to get you to see the movie while concealing the real twists. This is not saying the third act flips everything on its ear to reveal what the story is Really About. I haven’t seen the movie or read its script. It is to say that given the genre and talent involved in the film, such a third-act twist is incredibly likely.

(My guess: After the MAGA types have defeated the liberal elites, we learn they’re being manipulated by puppet masters eager to play into their base-level stereotypes, that the whole thing was a setup to keep them angry and keep them from examining the real roots of their “oppression.”)

It’s entirely possible the movie was exactly the simplistic read of the country that its critics on the right or the left feared, but given the talent involved (super-producer Jason Blum, of Get Out and The Purge fame; director Craig Zobel, whose Compliance is one of the best recent movies about what makes fascism so hard to resist; writers Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse, who paired with Zobel for the fantastic Leftovers episode “International Assassin”), I’m guessing there was some other level involved.

But even if there wasn’t, even if the movie was exactly as problematic as its critics on the right or left assumed, it’s still unsettling to think that the president going off half-cocked about a movie he hasn’t seen — without even naming the movie so we’re sure what he was talking about — would cause a major movie studio to pull that movie’s release. Forbes’s Scott Mendelson has argued persuasively that the situation with The Interview had a chilling effect, causing major studios to back off from potentially incendiary political movies, and this can only worsen that trend.

It’s here I would say something rousing about freedom of speech and its necessity in the face of would-be tyrants, but I think the exact set of circumstances around The Hunt is unlikely to be replicated. The movie will probably be released at some point, when things have calmed down, and everybody will shrug because it will ultimately be “just” a horror movie, even if it’s a Get Out-level masterpiece.

I should also say something about not judging a movie based on its trailer, but this is the internet. I don’t know what else we would talk about if we couldn’t dispense half-baked takes on things.

The only conclusion to draw here is that art — even terrible art — is precious, one of our few glimpses into the parts of ourselves that we’d rather not think about because we don’t like what’s reflected there, even if those parts are heightened and made grotesque in the funhouse mirror of horror or comedy. That the response to the political turmoil and gun violence has been much more about limiting the edges of what ideas are acceptable for public expression is alarming and exhausting. It’s also the sort of thing that rarely ends well.