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The Creative Cowardice of Universal Pictures: The Hunt and Censorship in the Age of Social Media

It’s now a truism that liberals run Hollywood. Survey and polling data suggests that Democratic political candidates outperform Republicans to a significant degree among creatives and business people in Hollywood. And for the tech-addicted among us, there’s anecdotal evidence in the form of Twitter, where we can watch everyone from John Cusack to Bradley Whitford spray their wildest political opinions all over our timelines.

But I’d like to submit a new theory about Hollywood: it’s run by cowards.

I’m not saying Hollywood is full of cowards because they’re liberal. Conservatives are just as capable of cowardice. Conservative entertainment media like Fox News and The Daily Wire are fully willing to decry censorship while also explaining why we must ban violent video games and movies. The cowardice I’m referring to isn’t marked by political affiliation. It’s the kind of spinelessness you see in a school yard when a child provokes a bully on behalf of others and then backs down at the last moment because “violence isn’t the answer,” leaving those others to suffer abuse.

I’m referring to the decision by Universal Pictures to pull its film The Hunt (2019?) from release next month.

In early August, Universal dropped the trailer for the Blumhouse production. The film, ostensibly, is about Davos globalists hunting and killing red state conservatives in a mash-up of The Most Dangerous Game and Alex Jones’s wettest dreams of the Bohemian Grove. What was most remarkable about the trailer was how unremarkable the film appeared at first glance. We’ve seen this kind of movie dozens of times over, from eighties staples like the Turkey Shoot (1982) and The Running Man (1987) to more recent examples like Battle Royale (2000) and The Hunger Games (2012). Even the film’s conceit, a shadowy cabal of liberal elites persecuting God-fearing Americans, borrows from the silliest ideas one might find in the Christian section of Amazon Prime. Movies—and I use that word loosely here—like New World Order: The End Has Come (2013) use or contain plot points which resemble The Most Dangerous Game.

So, another heavy-handed action satire that quickly disappears from theaters, right? Wrong. Almost immediately after the trailer dropped prominent conservatives worked themselves into hysterics and began screaming that the film was in poor taste and/or a direct threat to their lives. The wax figures that adorn the set of Fox & Friends emoted just enough to express concern with the film’s “message.” And President Trump tweeted: “Liberal Hollywood is Racist at the highest level, and with great Anger and Hate! They like to call themselves ‘Elite,’ but they are not Elite. In fact, it is often the people that they so strongly oppose that are actually the Elite. The movie coming out is made in order to inflame and cause chaos. They create their own violence, and then try to blame others. They are the true Racists, and are very bad for our Country!”

Universal responded not with the courage or conviction to support the creative team behind The Hunt, but instead by deflecting to another issue entirely in a statement announcing the film was being pulled from release. The statement ignored conservative criticisms of the movie and pivoted into social concerns, implying that it was not the right time to release a film like The Hunt so soon after repeated mass shootings. Their statement: “While Universal Pictures had already paused the marketing campaign for The Hunt, after thoughtful consideration, the studio has decided to cancel our plans to release the film. We stand by our filmmakers and will continue to distribute films in partnership with bold and visionary creators, like those associated with this satirical social thriller, but we understand that now is not the right time to release this film.”

Bullshit. The decision to pull the film and hide behind the most transparent and flimsy of excuses is a direct reflection of the cowardice of Hollywood. Further, it’s an example of how the smallest minority of vocal critics can wield a disproportionately large influence over the lives of others and exploit social media to censor art.

On the surface, Universal’s decision makes little sense within the context of their own explanation. Universal has worked with Blumhouse Productions on all four Purge films. The three sequels focus on gunplay and shoot-outs in near-future scenarios where gangs of elites and white supremacists roam the streets of American cities hunting the poor and members of marginalized communities. Universal released these movies in an era of escalating gun violence. The Purge: Anarchy (2014) came out after the Aurora, Sandy Hook, and the Navy Yard shootings; The First Purge (2018) came out literal days after The Capital Gazette shooting. That mass shootings would happen a month before The Hunt’s release isn’t surprising, although it is tragic. Mass shootings have occurred at least once a week in America since 2013. Universal had been content exploiting those fears when the protagonists (and victims) were people of color and the poor, but now balk when the focus shifts to rural conservatives?

This also isn’t the first time the Purge films have courted controversy. In 2015, protesters clashed with police in Baltimore after high school students spread a meme across social media announcing that a “purge” would be happening in the city. Similar rumors have caused panics in cities as disparate as Dayton and Detroit. So, using Universal’s own explanation as a guide, we can believe that either they were aware that these events occurred and didn’t see a direct connection to the films, or we’re to assume they knew and didn’t care.

The more likely scenario: Universal backed down in the face of scrutiny from conservative fear-mongers. The film was clearly intended to provoke Trump and his supporters. Universal’s statement even acknowledges this indirectly through its reference to the film as a “social thriller,” a phrase adopted by careering culture writers too scared to admit they like horror but in need of something to describe dark entertainment which they perceive as centering liberal critiques of society. Based on that and the trailer, we can gather that The Hunt is likely a dead-pan satire playing to conservatives’ wildest fantasies, saying “Liberals are everything you feared, and worse.” The trailer confirms stereotypes dreamt up by the conspiratorial right about liberals. They’re jet-setting coastal elites who have no connection to the lives of “real” Americans living in places like Florida and Arkansas; they hide their contempt for conservatives behind polite language, but immediately drop that when in the presence of other liberals so they can plot and scheme; and they admonish violence publicly but will use it in private to achieve their political goals.

This would be fine if Universal had supported the film and released it as intended. Satire, by definition, is an attack on the beliefs and values of a group or individuals. It uses exaggerated examples of a belief to mock that idea. The group or person might feel some level of emotional distress seeing themselves portrayed in such a way, but that’s the point, and they’ve experienced no actual harm. What satire is not is a direct threat to anyone’s life. Mocking someone is not assault, making fun of a stupid belief is not violence. But in backing down, Universal has intimated that art can be a weapon which inflicts physical damage.

This admission on the part of Universal Pictures speaks to a large problem facing art in the age of social media. The smallest groups of people can force art they don’t like, art they don’t understand, out of the public eye simply through misrepresenting it as a direct threat to their lives. They are able to exploit the highly visible but esoteric metrics of social media to “prove” others agree with them (even if that isn’t true). And the art they target isn’t the kind most people would ever encounter because that’s already art which conforms to the contours of their beliefs. They attack art operating at the fringes—violent genre films, pornography, anything that’s transgressive in ways which aren’t deemed socially acceptable. They attack disreputable art because they can’t control the artists creating it on a formal level, so they seek to erase it and prevent it from appearing again in the future so others don’t get a similar idea.

The Hunt is an unusual target. Its plot isn’t original, but the frame is highly topical; and while it’s a mainstream release, it appears to operating on the boundaries of good taste. This isn’t a late-night talk show host punching down with Florida Man jokes, nor is it a conservative YouTube comedian owning libs with lazy caricatures of college students. It’s a violent exploitation film which uses our current political divide to make a statement of some kind. The fact that a film like this, one with the backing of a major corporation, can get pulled is troubling. We don’t—and won’t—know what the true message of the film is because Universal appears to have sided with the film’s critics. 

Conservative activists are trying to use violent video games and movies as a scapegoat for gun violence in America, and this decision on the part of Universal Pictures will make it easier for those activists to push harder on the issue because they now know studios will second guess their creative teams. President Trump and others like him will point to this example. Universal didn’t explicitly state they pulled the film because of its content but we know the truth. There will be a push to regulate obscene art, specifically violence, and the films targeted won’t be Universal features. (They will have by then decided to not release those kinds of movies). The targeted will be independent films, the kind made by people without the financial and legal protections studios offer. When that happens, no one will speak up, because they had their chance and they fell silent, because they backed down, because they’re cowards. They flinched once. They’ll do it again.

About Robert Skvarla

Robert Skvarla is a freelance writer from Philadelphia. His focuses include conspiracy culture, fringe communities, and new religious movements. He has written for Atlas Obscura, Philadelphia City Paper, and Cinepunx, and served as a programmer for the Cinedelphia Film Festival.

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