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Why Universal’s ‘The Hunt’ is not like ‘The Interview’

Universal Pictures’ decision to call off the release of its satirical thriller “The Hunt” immediately drew comparisons to another film: Sony Pictures’ “The Interview.”

Both were political lightning rods, albeit for very different reasons. Sony dropped its wide-release plans for the 2014 comedy amid a massive North Korean attack of its computer systems and threats of violence against theaters, while Universal scrapped “The Hunt” following mass shootings in Gilroy, Calif.; Dayton, Ohio; and El Paso.

But the reactions to the decisions online and in Hollywood have been vastly different.

The axing of “The Interview” sparked immediate public pressure to release the film in the name of freedom of expression. Even President Obama weighed in, criticizing Sony’s leadership. The movie, which graphically depicted a fictional assassination attempt against North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un, was later released in a small number of independent theaters and through online channels.

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In stark contrast, few are publicly demanding a wide release for “The Hunt,” reflecting the deep sensitivity around gun violence in America and the string of recent massacres. The filmmakers and the studio have remained conspicuously silent since Universal’s statement over the weekend announcing its decision. And while Universal did not explicitly rule out the possibility that “The Hunt” will eventually be released in some form, it also made no assurances that it will.

The muted response highlights the no-win situation Comcast Corp.-owned Universal found itself in with “The Hunt,” in which blue-collar captives try to survive a deadly game devised by global elites.

Universal, in its statement, said it stood by the filmmakers associated with the project. Those included “The Hunt” producer Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions, whose films such as “Get Out,” “Happy Death Day” and “The Purge” have been highly successful for Universal.

However, the string of mass shootings and an increasingly fraught political climate made the situation untenable. Pressure on Universal ramped up as conservative media outlets, including Fox News, decried it as an irresponsible exploitation film in which elites hunt “deplorables” for sport. The situation gave President Trump an opening to blast the movie on Twitter, though not by name, attacking “liberal Hollywood” for putting out a film “to inflame and cause chaos.”

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Universal canceled the film on Saturday, saying, “we understand that now is not the right time to release this film.” The company had already pulled advertising for the movie, which was planned for a Sept. 27 release, as executives weighed options.

“The Hunt” became the latest example of an entertainment project to face a massive backlash because of current events and political issues. Viacom’s series reboot of “Heathers” for the Paramount Network was delayed after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in 2018. “Game of Thrones” creators David Benioff and Dan Weiss caught flak online in 2017 because of their proposed HBO show “Confederate,” which planned to depict an alternative history in which the South successfully seceded from the Union. The duo recently signed a deal with Netflix, likely killing the project.

Major movie studios, fearing the possibility of alienating potential audiences, tend to tread lightly when it comes to politics. But the premise of “The Hunt,” similar to that of the 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” was uniquely explosive.

“Universal dressed up an old story to fit the political angst of today,” said Gene Del Vecchio, a marketing expert who teaches at USC’s Marshall School of Business. “This is where good taste and social responsibility battle commerce.”

The question remains whether the film will ever see the light of day. It’s unlikely the studio will shelve the project altogether, given what the company has already spent on the production, Del Vecchio said. The movie cost an estimated $15 million to make, which is a relatively low figure in the film business, but still more expensive than the typical micro-budget Blumhouse offering.

However, the options for releasing the picture are probably limited. Given the current political climate, it would be challenging for Universal to schedule the picture for another release date in theaters, Del Vecchio said.

“What they’ve hit upon is a nerve in the nation, which is blue state versus red state,” said Del Vecchio, author of the book “Creating Blockbusters.” “They could try a later theatrical release, but the same divisive political environment is apt to remain even after the next election.”

Instead, he said, the company could try a quieter release on home video and streaming platforms, and forgo a big marketing push. NBCUniversal could also save the movie for its upcoming streaming service, which is expected to launch in mid-2020.

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Either way, if the movie ever does see the light of day, the controversy surrounding it will make some audiences curious, he said. The film’s trailer and the ensuing controversy sparked online debate over what the movie is actually about. One prominent critic, for the conservative National Review, pointed out the irony of Trump tweets possibly dealing a death blow to a movie that makes globalists the bad guys.

“Freedom of expression has often clashed with commerce,” Del Vecchio said. “Finding the right balance is both artful and profitable.”