Why the Controversial Thriller 'The Hunt' Was Cancelled Before Its Release

the hunt movie
Betty Gilpin in 'The Hunt' | Universal Pictures
Betty Gilpin in 'The Hunt' | Universal Pictures

Over the weekend, Universal made the rare move of "canceling" the release of one of its films, the Blumhouse-produced thriller The Hunt starring GLOW's Betty Gilpin as a woman on the run from a group of "elites" hunting her for sport. The film was supposed to hit theaters on September 27, but following the mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio and increased scrutiny in conservative media circles, including some vague tweets from President Trump, the movie was pulled from the schedule by Universal. If you were looking forward to seeing it this fall after the trailer dropped online last month, you're out of luck. 

"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,” a spokesperson for Universal said in a statement released on Saturday. “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.”

On the surface, The Hunt doesn't look that different from The Most Dangerous Game, The Hunger Games, or The Purge, which has inspired three increasingly politically confrontational sequels and a TV spin-off scheduled to start its second season in October on USA. Looking at the bare bones of the premise or even the trailer, which was already being pulled from television before the decision was made to cancel the release, The Hunt shouldn't be super controversial.

But there's political content to The Hunt, which was first reported on in The Hollywood Reporter and was later amplified by Fox News, that made the movie a more hotly debated item. Where some might think the controversy sells tickets, Universal clearly thought otherwise -- or simply decided the modestly budgeted film wasn't worth the hassle. If you're confused and don't even know what you're supposed to be mad about or if this is worth getting worked up about, we've got a breakdown for you below.

Ike Barinholtz in 'The Hunt' | Universal Pictures

What is The Hunt about? 

Before it became a political football, The Hunt was just another thriller coming out this fall. Directed by Craig Zobel, the filmmaker behind films like Compliance and Z For Zachariah, and written by the team of Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse, who worked on HBO's The Leftovers together, the movie had a relatively simple satirical premise: Crystal (Gilpin) wakes up in an open field with 11 other strangers, who are all being "hunted" by wealthy elites. Unsurprisingly, Crystal eventually turns the table on her attackers. At least, that's the idea presented in the trailer, which ended with Crystal facing off in hand-to-hand combat with Hillary Swank's character, who appears to be in charge of the operation. 

Besides Gilpin and Swank, who appear to be the two leads in the film, the cast also featured Blockers funny-guy Ike Barinholtz, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia star Glenn Howerton, and American Horror Story regular Emma Roberts in key roles. Oddly enough, country singer Sturgill Simpson, who provided the theme song for director Jim Jarmusch's The Dead Don't Die this summer, plays a character named "Kid Rock" in the movie, too. Or maybe he was actually playing Kid Rock? These are the important questions about The Hunt that will likely remain unanswered for a while. 

the hunt movie
Hillary Swank in 'The Hunt' | Universal Pictures

How did The Hunt become so controversial?

Like many social media-driven controversies, it started slowly and then picked up real fast. The first trailer and the initial marketing didn't downplay the class warfare aspect of the story but didn't scan as especially "partisan" either. (Reportedly, the script's original title was Red State Vs. Blue State.) If anything, the movie appeared to be trafficking in a fairly standard "rich people suck" form of populism that dystopian stories often emphasize. Yes, the people being hunted were mostly white and, according to the trailer, came from states like Wyoming, Mississippi, and Florida, but they weren't referred to as "deplorables" in the trailer itself. The people in charge aren't referred to as "liberal elites" either. 

However, the story from the Hollywood Reporter, which described ads for the movie being pulled from ESPN, contained select lines from an early version of the script like "Did anyone see what our ratfucker-in-chief just did?" and "At least The Hunt's coming up. Nothing better than going out to the Manor and slaughtering a dozen deplorables." The article also reported that the script made some executives at Universal "skittish" in May 2018 when the project was acquired. After the Hollywood Reporter article, the story got picked up by right-wing news outlets like Breitbart and ended up on Fox News. 

This is the point where I should say that I (obviously!) haven't seen the movie or read the script. Everyone who is mad about this movie hasn't seen it either. We don't really know what's in it because -- again, obviously -- it hasn't come out yet. But that didn't stop President Trump from weighing in on the movie in a pair of cryptic tweets below.

Those tweets were made on Friday, August 9; the next day, Universal announced that the film's release would be cancelled. Does that mean that President Trump's comments were the final straw that made Universal decide to post-pone the release? Not necessarily, but it couldn't have helped. The movie's stars and writers have largely refrained from commenting on the cancellation on social media so far. 

In a Hollywood Reporterarticle about the decision, a studio source at Universal said, "This was a decision that the studio came to with The Hunt filmmaking team, but ultimately it was about making the right decision, right now. It was a tough call for the company, but studio leadership, led by Donna Langley, all agreed that this film could wait."

the hunt movie
Betty Gilpin in 'The Hunt' | Universal Pictures

When will you be able to see The Hunt?

This is a trickier question to answer. Here's the thing: Universal will probably release The Hunt at some point in the future or at the very least offload it to a streaming service when the controversy has died down. Even 2014's The Interview, the Seth Rogen and James Franco comedy that was wrapped up in the Sony hack saga, was eventually released. (Though, it's worth noting Sony lost a lot of money on it.) There are plenty of examples from recent history of studios delaying potentially divisive or insensitive movies after public tragedies. 

Following the Columbine massacre in 1999, the movie O, a modern retelling of Shakespeare's Othello starring Mekhi Phifer and Josh Hartnett that featured a school shooting sequence, was delayed for years, before being sold by Miramax to Lionsgate and eventually released in 2001. Shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Mr. Robot, and the recent remake of Heathers have faced delays in the wake of unforeseen events. The ebbs and flows of these delays change year to year. 

What's perhaps most novel about the situation surrounding The Hunt is the role that President Trump played in the controversy. Will he continue to speak out against the movie, perhaps using it as a symbol of Hollywood's alleged contempt for his voter base, or is this just another passing controversy? There's no way of knowing at this point, but it's fair to worry that the situation could have a chilling effect on major studios green-lighting potentially "risky" projects in the future. The only certainty is that The Hunt won't be playing at a theater near you in September. 

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Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He's on Twitter @danielvjackson.