How The Hunt Came Back From Cancellation

After being pulled from Universal’s release calendar, the hyperviolent Blumhouse movie gets a second chance to use controversy to its advantage. Photo: Patti Perret/Universal Pictures

This weekend, Blumhouse’s The Hunt is set to open in theaters across the country — just like it was supposed to on September 27 of last year, before Universal Pictures abruptly shelved it. The Hunt is a violent movie, and in the wake of two mass shootings in 2019 the idea of what the film might be about (wealthy liberal elites mercilessly gunning down right-leaning Americans) came to overwhelm what it actually was: a B horror flick. It’s got an Eli Roth-esque maniacal-laugh approach to its hyperbolic violence, loosely inspired by The Most Dangerous Game and starring GLOW’s Betty Gilpin as a mysteriously combat-competent pawn in the middle of it all.

The initial controversy surrounding The Hunt only intensified after conservative outlets caught wind of a specific word in the script — the Hillary Clinton–coined “deplorables,” seemingly used to refer to the poor murdered American in the story — which catalyzed a mini-wave of anger. The Hunt was framed as a brutal matter of Blue versus Red, when, in fact, almost no one had actually seen the movie to argue otherwise. At this point, Blumhouse and Universal started reevaluating the movie’s release plan, and by the time Trump was tweeting about “racist” Hollywood the decision was all but made: The Hunt was temporarily canceled.

According to the four principals involved in making the film, pretty much no one was prepared for this level of scandal. Co-screenwriters Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof claim they weren’t trying to write a shocking movie, director Craig Zobel says he was simply interested in playing within the bounds of satirical genre stories, and Jason Blum maintains that he acquired The Hunt because it “checked all the boxes” for what he considers a Blumhouse movie: It was fun, scary, subversive, and original (ish, see: The Most Dangerous Game); in short, “super entertaining.”

Vulture sat down with each of them in advance of the The Hunt’s second-chance premiere, which is cashing in on the controversy and billing itself as “the most talked about movie of the year … that no one’s actually seen,” and got a beat-by-beat account of how this unlikely black sheep died and came back to life again.

December 2016: The Brainstorm

Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse decide to write what would become The Hunt while working on the last episodes of The Leftovers. “I was sort of watching Damon edit the penultimate episode that we’d written together and that Craig Zobel had directed,” says Cuse. “We were just talking at lunch about like what we might want to do next, and then Damon was like, ‘I’ve always thought it’d be great to write a Blumhouse movie.’ I said, ‘That’s great. We should just do it, and Zobel can direct it.’ That was literally the very first three sentences: Blumhouse movie, Zobel can direct it, and Damon said yes. Then he said, ‘I’ve always thought The Most Dangerous Game would be a cool thing to adapt.’ So I was like, ‘Let’s do it.’”

March 2018: The Green Light

Lindelof, Cuse, Zobel, and Blumhouse chief Jason Blum have lunch at the Palm in Los Angeles to discuss the possibility of Blumhouse producing the movie. “They wrote the script themselves on spec, and then they went out to buyers with it,” says Blum. “That’s where I saw the script, and I loved it. I really wanted to do it, and Damon played his cards close to his vest. Afterward he said, ‘I always wanted it to be a Blumhouse movie,’ so I always had pole position, but I didn’t know I was in pole position at the lunch. But I loved it, and I did everything I could to try and get it for us.”

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Universal’s chairman of its Filmed Entertainment Group, Donna Langley, “acquired the script and fast-tracked it at a modest $18 million budget.”

May 2018: Alleged Apprehension at Universal

THR also reports that the studio started feeling anxiety around the movie shortly after it was acquired. “The Hunt made some executives at Universal skittish back in May 2018,” Kim Masters and Tatiana Siegel write. “It is unclear whether there were any other bidders on the property, the sale of which was brokered by CAA, but insiders at several studios told THR at the time that they did not pursue it because of the explosive premise.”

If studio execs are getting nervous, however, Lindelof says he never heard about it. “They’re quoting a filmmaker with ties to Universal saying, like, people were nervous or worried about the movie,” Lindelof tells Vulture. “I was like, well that’s possible, but I would — at some point in the development of the movie — someone probably would have said to me, ‘Dude, this is dangerous,’ or ‘This is a hot potato.’ That never happened. It doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen internally, but it never made its way to me.”

February 2019: Shooting Begins

The Times-Picayune reports that The Hunt will begin filming in Louisiana at the end of February.

July 30, 2019: Trailer Debut

The first trailer for The Hunt debuts, featuring Betty Gilpin in intense combat situations and a loosely established premise in which rich people are hunting poor people. It does not generate controversy. The film’s theatrical debut is slated for September 27.

August 3, 2019: Dual Mass Shootings

On the morning of Saturday, August 3, 22 people are killed during a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. That night, another mass murderer kills nine people at a bar in Dayton, Ohio. ESPN allegedly pulls an ad for The Hunt (which begins like an emergency broadcast) that was set to air over the weekend, prompting Universal to rethink its television and online campaigns.

August 6: New Test Screening

If the first set of concerns surrounding the content of The Hunt revolved around its ads, Lindelof says the second involved a test screening scheduled just days after the shootings occurred. “The second conversation that happened was, are we going to have test screenings that Tuesday night? It’s like 72 hours after these shootings,” explains the writer. “Then someone very smart, who is not me, said we should go ahead with it because if that audience tells us this movie is no good in the immediate aftermath of those events, then we probably shouldn’t release the movie at all.”

The two-theater test screening proceeds apace, and Zobel recalls feeling anxious as they waited for audiences to give reactions. “We all sat there on our hands very nervous the whole time, sort of making assumptions ourselves about what the movie was,” says the director. “Then we looked at the scores and everybody, like, liked the movie. We even encouraged questions during the focus groups, which were only met with it not occurring to people [to connect the film to the shootings]. They actually had to be asked again because they weren’t connecting it to this gun-violence thing at all.”

Lindelof shares a similar account of the test screenings. “Afterward in these focus groups, they asked, ‘Were you uncomfortable at any point? Was it inappropriate to show this?’ And the audience seemed kind of befuddled by the question. They were like, ‘It’s a movie. It’s so over the top,’” he told Vulture. “And then The Hollywood Reporter story was published.”

August 6, 2019: The Deplorables

An exclusive story by The Hollywood Reporter asserts that Universal started “re-evaluating its strategy for the certain-to-be-controversial satire” in the wake of the horrific shootings. Lindelof says these marketing concerns were the first indication the rollout of their film might be affected. He told Vulture, “I think the first conversation that occurred was, ‘Oh it’s probably not appropriate to have commercial spots,’ because the preceding week during the Dem debates, they had run a couple of Hunt spots and it was sort of like, ‘Um, okay, how do we feel about this? I think people understand that the movie is a satire, but if they didn’t understand that the movie is a satire, this could be problematic.’ So, the first decision was made, should we pull those spots?”

THR also reports that the line “Nothing better than going out to the Manor and slaughtering a dozen deplorables” appears in The Hunt’s script, but does not provide context for the scene as it appears onscreen. (The line is actually a message sent in a group text between characters not yet framed as protagonists or antagonists.) The trade also claims that The Hunt was originally titled Red State vs. Blue State, a name choice Universal denies. “While reports also say The Hunt was formerly titled Red State vs. Blue State, that was never the working title for the film at any point throughout the development process, nor appeared on any status reports under that name,” the studio says in a statement to Variety. Lindelof also tells Vulture that the movie was never called Red State vs. Blue State and that it “wasn’t even an early preliminary title.”

Of the THR story, Cuse says, “That Hollywood Reporter article came out and was sort of the first domino in the subsequent media coverage that sprung up around it.”

August 7, 2019: Fox News Weighs In

Fox News seizes on the script’s inclusion of the word deplorables and publishes its own story about The Hunt with this headline: “Hollywood blockbuster that satirizes killing of ‘deplorables’ causes outrage: ‘Demented and evil.’” In it, a “satirist” is quoted saying the movie “is sick and shows just how hateful the left has become,” with a professor adding that it is “harmful to a culture that surely needs messages of unity and understanding.”

At this point, almost no one in media has seen the movie. As a result, Blum says the reaction came as a surprise. “If we had anticipated anything that happened we would have done it differently,” he says. Zobel recalls being kept in fairly close contact with the studio as the heat was rising on the movie, and that the feedback on social media came swiftly. “My Twitter was blowing up just as much as Universal’s phones, you know what I mean? It was immediately like, ‘How dare you?’”

Cuse, for his part, says the sudden characterization of the movie as controversial came as a shock to him and Lindelof, too. “We always kind of had the sense that we were playing with something volatile in terms of the topics and the subject matter, but honestly, we were kind of surprised by the reaction that happened in August,” Cuse told Vulture. “We wrote the screenplay and everyone read it and Craig directed the movie, and then we did some test screenings where we sort of universally got back that people weren’t offended by the movie — on both sides of the political divide. So, we were definitely very aware of this hyperpolarized situation in our country, but we were kind of like, ‘Oh, I guess we’re good!’”

August 9, 2019: A Trump Tweet

Presumably after seeing coverage of The Hunt on his preferred news outlet, President Trump posts a tweet saying “Liberal Hollywood is Racist at the highest level, and with great Anger and Hate!” He does not specifically mention The Hunt in his posts.

August 10, 2019: The Hunt Gets Pulled

On Saturday, August 10, Universal announces that the movie would not be released on September 27 as planned. “After thoughtful consideration, the studio has decided to cancel our plans to release the film,” a studio spokesperson says in a statement. “We stand by our filmmakers and will continue to distribute films in partnership with bold and visionary creators, but we understand that now is not the right time to release this film.” Though disappointed, Cuse, Lindelof, and Zobel all told Vulture that they agreed with the decision to table The Hunt considering the grave nature of the two shootings.

Before the news went public, Blum says he called the screenwriters and director from his dad’s house in New Mexico to let them know a final decision had been made. “It was a Saturday morning that it was decided, and I did a conference call. I said to them, ‘We’re going to take the movie off the schedule.’ And they kind of said, ‘Is there anymore conversation around it?’ And I said, ‘No, the decision is definitive,’ and we spoke on the phone for a long time.” (Blum made a separate call to Gilpin after.) Zobel remembers that conversation being the first thing he did that day: “I think that call was at like 8:30 in the morning on a Saturday. I had not, like, brushed my teeth.”

The decision, Blum says, was a “collective” one on behalf of both Blumhouse and Universal, made in concert with Langley, Universal’s head of worldwide marketing Michael Moses, and NBCUniversal president Jeff Shell, among others. “The fact that [the shootings] were back-to-back, I think everyone kind of felt like it was not the right moment to release this movie, and all the tweeting and stuff just amplified that,” Blum adds. “But we really made the decision based on the current events.”

August 16, 2019: Blum Defends The Hunt

In an interview with Vulture, the producer says he would make The Hunt all over again despite the controversy surrounding it, and that he hoped it would make its way to theaters eventually. “If I was offered the choice to make the movie again, I would say yes. We definitely made marketing mistakes, and we made plenty of mistakes along the way. So I’ve learned a lot. It might change how I would position movies and how I would consult on the marketing of the movies. But actually the making of the movies? No.”

August 19, 2019: Zobel Speaks Up

In an email interview with Variety, Zobel says, “If I believed this film could incite violence, I wouldn’t have made it,” and, “We seek to entertain and unify, not enrage and divide. It is up to the viewers to decide what their takeaway will be.”

January 2020: The Hunt Is Back

Blum says his company and Universal decided “about a month” before the new trailer would be released that they’d settled on a release date in March. Throughout this time period, Blum says it was his job to “try and get everyone to see the forest through the trees and not get wrapped up in the near future,” says Blum. “It’s not about getting the movie out now … or acting rashly. Not that anyone did act rashly. But you take that nervous energy and try to convert that into, ‘Hey guys, let’s just keep our eye on the prize here, which is getting the movie back on the schedule at any time. I think that was my biggest role in the last six months once the movie was taken off the schedule.”

Blum insists the conversation around The Hunt’s eventual release was “never dormant,” and that all possibilities were on the table for next steps, including taking it straight to VOD, giving it a more limited theatrical run, and even scrapping it entirely. Blum always wanted the same thing. “I love the movie. I’m really proud of the movie, and you can’t have a bigger impact on the culture with a movie than with a theatrical release,” he says. “Streaming movies just don’t have the same impact on the culture — yet — even though more people probably see them. That may change. That may be different in a year, but right now the biggest impact you can still have on the culture with the movie is through a theatrical release.”

February 11, 2020: A New Trailer Drops

Five months after The Hunt was originally meant to arrive in theaters, Universal and Blumhouse debut the new trailer and 2.0 marketing campaign. A one-sheet covered in negative quotes about the movie surrounds a block of red text that states, “The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen.” The trailer beckons viewers to check it out for themselves on March 13.

In an exclusive interview with THR that came with the trailer relaunch, Blum calls The Hunt “probably the most judged movie that’s ever existed that everyone who judged it hadn’t seen,” while Lindelof takes a more measured approach, saying, “We think that people who see it are going to enjoy it and this may be a way to shine a light on a very serious problem in the country, which is that we’re divided. And we think the movie may actually, ironically, bring people together.”

The producer embraces the new marketing approach, telling Vulture, “I was involved but it was 100 percent Michael [Moses] and Universal marketing’s idea to lean into ‘the movie that no one’s ever seen,’ and I just thought it was great. I loved that idea, but it was their idea.” When asked how he thinks last year’s pre-lash will inform audiences’ experience of The Hunt now — and whether or not it ultimately helps the movie’s performance — Blum is actually pretty sure the bad press won’t factor into its reception.

“I think 90 percent of the audience is going into it with fresh eyes, and will have no idea when  it was canceled or not canceled,” says the producer. “Happily, I don’t think America is paying attention to Hollywood release schedules. I do think the media was aware of it, and I think for that reason the marketing was great — for the media. But whether most of the audience is aware of it or not, I don’t care at all. I care if they like the movie.”

How The Hunt Came Back From Cancellation