Universal City, Calif. • “The Hunt” is back on. Only this time Universal Pictures has designed a radically different marketing campaign for the violent film, which is ostensibly about liberal elites who kill conservative “rednecks” for sport.
Before “The Hunt” was shelved last year in the face of criticism, Universal had started to market the film as something it was not: a relatively straightforward horror flick. Now the studio is hoping that an unusual marketing tactic — forthrightness — will protect “The Hunt” from blowback before its release on March 13.
A new trailer, released Tuesday, does not try to boil down “The Hunt” to a single, salable genre, which is the way Hollywood usually approaches films. Instead it presents “The Hunt” as it is — an absurdist satire that leaves no side of the political divide unscathed and is equal parts comedy, horror and thriller.
“Not one frame was changed,” Jason Blum, who produced the film with Damon Lindelof (“Lost,” “Watchmen”), said in an interview. “This is exactly the same movie.”
“The Hunt,” starring Emmy-nominated Betty Gilpin (Netflix’s “Glow”) and two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank, was supposed to arrive in theaters in September. Trailers in July veiled the political aspect of the $15 million film and made it resemble an entry in the Universal’s dystopian “Purge” horror series. Universal had not yet screened “The Hunt” for film reporters or critics.
Then 31 people were killed in back-to-back shootings in Texas and Ohio. The Hollywood Reporter published an article saying Universal had pulled ads for “The Hunt” as a result. The article, based on a copy of the script, also disclosed that the movie revolved “around third-rail political themes” — notably elites stalking “deplorables.”
An outcry followed, with conservative pundits criticizing the film’s premise as “sick” and “awful.” Before long, President Donald Trump alluded to “The Hunt” on Twitter, saying it was made by liberal Hollywood “to inflame and cause chaos.”
Caught in a maelstrom, Universal canceled the release, leading to accusations of censorship.
Universal, a division of NBCUniversal, which is owned by Comcast, said Tuesday that it would give the film a wide release in theaters. It also invited a handful of reporters to its campus in the San Fernando Valley to watch “The Hunt” in the Alfred Hitchcock Building and discuss it afterward with Blum and Lindelof.
“We didn’t want to just pretend that nothing had ever happened,” Blum said.
Lindelof, who wrote the screenplay with Nick Cuse, said “The Hunt” had been inspired by “Get Out,” the blockbuster comedic mystery, social satire and horror film directed and written by Jordan Peele. (Blum was a producer.) It may be hard to believe, but Lindelof insisted that he had never expected “The Hunt” to prompt political blowback, certainly not on a presidential level.
“It didn’t strike me as third rail,” Lindelof said of the film. He added of Trump: “I wish that he had seen it. The movie he was talking about was not the movie I feel that we made.”
“The Hunt” begins (spoiler warning) with a close-up shot of text messages on a phone. One reads, “Promise you won’t judge me?” The conversation is about killing “deplorables” for sport. The discussion seems serious. Or is it in jest, albeit in very poor taste?
The film, directed by Craig Zobel, whose credits include the well-reviewed 2015 thriller “Z for Zachariah,” then introduces the unlikable elites. One snootily rejects the caviar offered to him by an attendant on a private jet. He would prefer figs. There aren’t any? Sigh. Champagne will have to suffice.
A dozen strangers then wake up in a clearing in the woods. All are overt stereotypes. A woman from Wyoming rocks a spectacular mullet. One older man wears a beige fishing shirt and a military cap.
The liberal elites then begin the slaughter. “For the record, climate change is real!” one shrieks before blowing up a victim.
Then one of the people being hunted turns the tables, picking off the killers one by one until only the ringleader remains. Slaying the liberals is not terribly difficult: They are easily distracted — bickering with one another over politically correct language, squealing in delight when progressive filmmaker Ava DuVernay likes a social media post about their volunteer work in Haiti.
By the end of the R-rated film, the story has included a paramilitary unit in Croatia, a dark internet conspiracy theory, a killing by stiletto pump and a pig wearing a T-shirt.
“As anyone who has seen the movie can attest, it’s all so over the top and absurd,” Lindelof said. “It’s possible that people will see this movie and say it’s irresponsible or is a call to violence. But the morality of the movie” — who is left standing at the end — “has always felt very clean to us.”
As any Hollywood marketer will tell you, it is exceeding difficult to burnish a film once an unfavorable narrative has formed around it. So part of Universal’s new marketing strategy involves embracing the ugliness. “The most talked about movie of the year is one that no one’s actually seen,” Universal’s new poster says. “Decide for yourself.”
But the new trailer also marks “a big tonal shift,” as Lindelof said. Rather than a horror movie with some social commentary, à la “The Purge,” “The Hunt” is shown as a comedic social satire with some horror elements. In particular, the new trailer plays up the absurdity of the premise.
“You wanted it to be real, so you decided it was,” Swank’s character says sternly.
Which leads to a question: Why didn’t Universal take this approach to begin with?
Michael Moses, Universal’s marketing chief, declined to discuss the studio’s initial strategy or the shift revealed on Tuesday except to say in an email: “To simply restart the previous campaign felt like it ignores what transpired. We thought it appropriate to acknowledge the film’s history and also the potential curiosity around it.”
The initial strategy probably boiled down to Movie Marketing 101. Satires are hard to explain to a mass audience. Horror films are easier.