Scott Mendelson, Contributor
I have often theorized that the fallout over Sony’s The Interview, which occurred in late 2014, is a big reason why studios have slowly stopped making decently-budgeted original and/or politically-specific films. The Seth Rogen/James Franco flick, about two idiot journalists who get recruited in a CIA operation to assassinate Kim Jong Un, was just a studio programmer meant as Christmas counter-programming. It was “just a movie” produced by Sony from the guys who had previously scored solid grosses from This Is the End ($127 million on a $32 million budget) and The Pineapple Express ($87 million/$27 million).
But then someone, who may have been related to the North Korean government, hacked Sony and leaked countless private emails onto the Internet. While the media was digging through the stolen emails, public threats against the movie, allegedly courtesy of North Korea, were made against the film’s Christmas release date. Once Carmike Theaters opted not to show the movie, every other theater chain that much more liable had they played the movie and something violent occurred. Why risk audiences being hurt during (or not showing up to) The Hobbit or Into the Woods for some R-rated comedy farce?
Within a week, the movie was pulled from multiplexes, save for around 200 independent theaters and given a VOD release. The media didn’t help by responding not with horror at the alleged actions of a foreign power, but by pointing and laughing at the unearthed emails. This “blame the victim” reaction was replayed in 2016 when the DNC was hacked as part of Russia’s schemes to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. While correlation doesn’t equal causation, 2015 was the last year that we saw a halfway decent number of medium-to-high-budget original movies (Blackhat, Spy, Tomorrowland, San Andreas, etc.) alongside the IP-specific tentpoles.
On that note, as you’ve probably heard by now, Universal has indefinitely canceled the theatrical release of The Hunt. Starring (among others) Betty Gilpin, Emma Roberts and Hilary Swank, the Blumhouse flick is/was a variation on “The Most Dangerous Game,” (or, pick your poison, The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, Hard Target or Surviving the Game) with rich elites paying to hunt lower-class folks for sport and for fun. It was due for release on September 27, 2019, right between Lionsgate’s R-rated and presumably ultraviolent Rambo: Last Blood on September 18 and Warner Bros.’ R-rated and presumably violent Joker on October 4.
Directed by Craig Zobel and penned by Nick Cuse and Damon Lindelof, the film had come under fire in the wake of two high profile mass shootings and after being apparently singled-out by President Donald Trump for a plotline that allegedly portrays rich liberals paying to hunt poor, white “deplorables.” While you can argue the hypocrisy of being outraged over The Hunt but not The Purge (which shows rich/conservative white folks orchestrating the slaughter of minorities and poor people), the folks yelling loudest may not A) be doing so in informed good faith, B) care about context and C) care about being called out for hypocrisy.
Even a glance at the First Man marketing would have noted a plethora of American flags, but that didn’t stop politically-inclined folks from arguing that the Ryan Gosling-starring Neil Armstrong biopic had erased the American flag from the moon landing sequence and the overall Damien Chazelle-directed feature. I don’t think the “false flag” controversy caused the film’s box office failure (it was an emotionally introverted character play when folks were expecting Apollo 13), but it did dominate the media narrative right up until release. Ditto that manufactured controversy that belittled Universal’s A Dog’s Purpose concerning a doctored video showing a dog being mistreated onset.
Universal may have pulled The Hunt because it didn’t think it could successfully market a violent running-and-gunning grindhouse actioner just weeks after two high-profile mass killings. Universal may have been genuinely concerned about political retaliation from a famously retaliatory U.S. president and/or the potential for violence either concerning the film’s release or during a theatrical showing of the movie. In a mix of both notions, they were perhaps worried about a repeat of The Interview, where theater chains pulled out at the last minute after a costly marketing campaign.
Universal got burned by the ridiculous and manufactured First Man “no flags” controversy. And while the movie recovered, Universal’s A Dog’s Purpose did open lower than anticipated due to that fake controversy. For that matter, it was during an evening showing of Universal’s Trainwreck when a 59-year-old man entered the auditorium on July 23, 2015 and killed two moviegoers. Even if the potential for blow back, either political or in the form of any number of previously-unthinkable acts of (arguably) politically-motivated violence, is slim, Comcast is a giant corporation and The Hunt was an $18 million B-movie that would have been lucky to gross maybe $75 million worldwide.
If Universal pulled the film out of “sensitivity,” then it’s still a scenario where society is apparently more comfortable with Hollywood pulling or delaying movies (Phone Booth) and TV shows (Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s “Graduation Day part II”) featuring gun violence than they are in crafting laws to lessen real-life gun violence. If they pulled the film after it got targeted by the President of the United States, either on a whim after the movie was referenced on Fox and Friends, or as a political strategy to distract from a debate over actual gun control (or distract from the Trump-like rhetoric espoused by at least one of the shooters), that’s close to government censorship.
And if Universal was concerned about a violent movie begetting real-life violence, well, without remotely arguing that the movie (or movies of this nature) are to blame, that’s sadly valid in a way it wasn’t just a few years ago. When Bob Dole called out Hollywood in the summer of 1995 for the “mainstreaming of deviancy,” there wasn’t a very real fear that the president’s followers would take up arms and show up at a movie theater to intimidate patrons and/or escalate accordingly. Ditto Joe Lieberman’s habit of calling out Hollywood’s “culture of carnage” or Tipper Gore’s crusade against vulgar song lyrics.
In a rational world, Universal, owned by Comcast, could have just ignored the noise and marketed the movie accordingly, perhaps with ads that emphasized hack-and-slash violence and fisticuffs over gunfire. Whether or not the media controversies would have helped the movie, mainstream attention wouldn’t have hurt a movie that audiences genuinely wanted to see. Generally speaking, online trolls complaining about Brie Larson didn’t hurt Captain Marvel any more than liberal pundits complaining about Bohemian Rhapsody prevented that film from grossing $900 million worldwide. The question is whether the film’s marketing and wide theatrical release would have proceeded rationally and/or without incident.
It is entirely possible, hell even plausible today that theaters would have become as skittish next month as they were five Christmases ago. That would leave Universal holding the proverbial bag only after having marketed the film up to its release date. Again, that this was a small film wouldn’t have helped. Why risk the safety of patrons flooding theaters, or risk scared patrons choosing not to go to the multiplex, to see Joker and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil for some grindhouse flick? Every feeling of anger, disappointment and frustration you might be feeling over this is valid.
The choice for Universal to pull The Hunt from theatrical release, even if it pops up in theaters or on VOD in the near future, is troubling on countless moral, artistic and social levels. But, in this arguably immoral and amoral time in which we live, it may have been the only choice. Because the movie was so small, and the company producing it so big (which itself is a problem of our corporate conglomerate culture), it was the only financially logical choice to make once it got caught up in and used as a political pawn in a culture war. There were too many previously implausible variables now potentially in play.
Blumhouse is one of the few production companies making of-the-moment theatrical flicks. Universal is the best defense against a Disney theatrical monopoly. That Comcast would be willing to (or be forced to) discard a presumably profitable socially-topical actioner from the studio that has supplied them with acclaimed (Get Out) and successful (The Purge) “social thrillers” due to outside pressure is heartbreaking. But, considering the very real potential for catastrophe, it’s understandable. After all, why risk making The Interview and/or The Hunt when you can instead make lots of money from Venom and Cats? I’m not mad, but I’m very, very disappointed.