Universal's movie The Hunt was controversial long before its was cancelled, according to a new report. Directed by Craig Zobel and written by Damon Lindelof and Nick Cuse (all three of whom had previously collaborated on the HBO TV series The Leftovers), The Hunt follows a dozen strangers as they're hunted for sport by wealthy, powerful individuals. However, when one of their would-be prey (Betty Gilpin) starts fighting back, the hunters suddenly become the hunted.
Marketing for The Hunt kicked off in July, when the film's trailer began showing in theaters with its fellow horror-thriller Crawl. Many compared the movie's footage and its premise to other horror titles produced by Jason Blum (like The Purge), as well as much older works like 1932's The Most Dangerous Game. However, in the aftermath of the recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, Universal pulled the film's marketing material before cancelling The Hunt's release altogether. Now, it's come to light the project was always a problem child for the studio.
In a new article, THR reveals Universal's test screening for The Hunt - which took place just prior to its cancellation - didn't go well. The film is actually a satirical thriller and reportedly made test audience members uncomfortable with its politics. It even uses the politically-loaded terms "deplorables" and "elites" to refer to the anti-choice, gun-loving characters being hunted and the wealthy people trying to kill them. Universal had made a conscious effort to leave the movie's overtly political elements out of its trailer, so this particular aspect was all the more shocking to test audiences. Shortly after their altering of the film's marketing, the studio and The Hunt's creative team even received death threats via email and social media.
The studio's issues with The Hunt go back even further, with THR's sources reporting several Universal executives have been wary of the project ever since studio heads Jeff Shell and Donna Langley officially picked it up in May 2018. They nevertheless avoided toning down or trimming the film's political references, perhaps trusting the movie was in safe hands with Blum (who had produced similarly political but ultimately successful horror-thrillers in the past, The Purge and Get Out included). The Hunt cost a relatively slender $18 million to make, which is another reason why Universal allowed its creatives to pursue their vision without any interference. But in the wake of the recent U.S. mass shootings, the studio decided it was too great a risk and finally pulled the plug on the film.
In spite of that, analysts and the general public have continued to weigh in on The Hunt's cancellation in the days since it happened. Some have noted the move was likely more of a business decision than a politically-motivated one, as Universal surely wanted to avoid any further backlash by releasing the film in theaters as originally planned. Other people, meanwhile, have voiced their concerns about the announcement being made in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump criticizing its content (despite his uninformed perspective on the matter). Ultimately, though, Universal made its decision independent of any outside forces - and, by the sound of it, has been prepared to suddenly bail on The Hunt at the first sign of real trouble for some time.