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Film fracas: The troubled release of Craig Zobel’s controversial ‘The Hunt’

Arab News logo Arab News 05/04/2020 Raffi Boghosian

Betty Gilpin posing for the camera

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‘The Hunt,’ 2020. Supplied
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LOS ANGELES: It’s not uncommon for films to be met with controversy, particularly those trafficking in political satire. Seth Rogen and Dave Franco’s 2014 comedy “The Interview” caught the ire of the North Korean government. After cyberattacks against the film’s distributor, Sony Pictures, it was eventually pulled from theaters in favor of a digital release. But rarely have these controversies been met with a direct response from the US President, as was the case for Blumhouse Productions’ “The Hunt.”

Originally set to release in September 2019, it is inspired by the classic short story “The Most Dangerous Game” and pokes fun at the divide between the American political left and right. In the film, a group of strangers wake up to find they are being hunted for sport and quickly realize the main difference separating themselves from their predators. While the hunters are stereotypical liberals, the hunted are all stereotypical conservatives.

“Our whole goal with this film was to make something that was both entertaining and unifying, in the sense that we could all laugh at how silly this divisiveness has become,” director Craig Zobel told Arab News.

“We are about to enter another election season, and there will be a lot of issues trying to divide us.”

Zobel was not able to realize his goal, though. After test screenings in early August 2019, the film received media backlash as critics interpreted it as anti-conservative, especially considering that the hunted are referred to as ‘deplorables’ by their hunters.

One of the loudest voices from the backlash was US President Donald Trump.

“Liberal Hollywood is racist at the highest level,” Trump said in a tweet. “They create their own violence and then try to blame others.”

The cast and crew for “The Hunt” were taken aback by what they saw as a misinterpretation of their intentions and the film itself.

“It maybe suggested we were on to something because the very thing that happens in the movie — this sort of assumption turning out to be completely wrong — happened in real life,” said Nick Cuse, who wrote the script along with Damon Lindelof.

The film’s 2019 release was ultimately delayed, though not in response to the controversy. Distributor Universal Pictures decided to push back the premiere after the mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas, setting the new release for March 13, 2020.

“There were horrible current events at the time of the initial release,” producer Jason Blum told Arab News. “I think the country needed time to digest that. And whether or not it’s the right time for the movie now, I don’t know yet. I hope it is. Our feeling was that enough time had gone by.”

Trouble surrounding the film’s release was not only limited to controversy, however, as the new premiere date coincided with the breakout of the coronavirus disease. The film made $5.3 million in its opening weekend — approximately half of what was predicted — as audiences stayed home. The later countrywide theater shutdowns saw that box office revenue drop to zero dollars. In an experimental move, Universal has opted to release the film online for digital rental, along with other in-theater films including “The Invisible Man” and “Trolls: World Tour.”

Jeff Shell, CEO of NBCUniversal said in a press statement: “Rather than delaying these films or releasing them into a challenged distribution landscape, we wanted to provide an option for people to view these titles at home, which is both accessible and affordable.”

The film has garnered middling reviews. The political satire is clumsy and does not have a whole lot to say, but the script has a surprising amount of laughs, and the action is of the gory, fun variety that audiences have come to expect from Blumhouse Productions. By that metric, the filmmakers succeeded. As Cuse told Arab News, they wanted “The Hunt” to be candy, not medicine.

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