What the cancellation of The Hunt says about the power of right-wing outrage culture

It doesn’t matter if the film would have painted the president’s supporters in a positive light. What matters is that this fight keeps the culture war raging.

Try to imagine if prominent liberals spent day after day demanding the cancellation of a seemingly pro-Trump movie they hadn’t seen based on a script they had not read, going so far as to repeatedly suggest that its impending release could inspire real-world violence. Fox News figures and other right-wing media personalities would predictably respond by rolling their eyes and snickering about “snowflakes.” President Donald Trump may even weigh in on Twitter to mock the outraged liberals and gin up support from his base.

That exact scenario played out nearly word-for-word last week -- only with the sides neatly reversed. Buckling under pressure from outraged conservative media and Trump, Universal Pictures first paused promotion of an upcoming movie and then scrapped it altogether. The brief, bizarre controversy was an instructive example of how right-wing media outlets are waging the culture war under Trump, all while constantly claiming that it's liberals who promote outrage culture.

On August 6, The Hollywood Reporter published a story about Universal Pictures’ plans to pause the promotional campaign for its September 27 release The Hunt.  Executives worried that the movie, a violent modern-day adaptation of Richard Connell’s 1924 short story The Most Dangerous Game, might be in poor taste following a spate of mass shootings across the country.

Studios have frequently edited films, delayed releases, or retooled marketing strategies in the wake of national tragedies. After the 9/11 attacks, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Collateral Damage was put on ice until the following February. The Colin Farrell movie Phone Booth, about a man being targeted by a sniper while trapped in a New York City phone booth, was delayed twice -- first after 9/11 and again in the wake of sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., area in 2002. In 2017, following the Las Vegas massacre, the producers of American Horror Story: Cult removed a mass shooting scene from the TV show. It makes perfect sense that the studio would rethink the release strategy for The Hunt and delay the film. 

There’s one thing studio execs probably didn’t count on: Fox News.

The Hollywood Reporter article referenced the film’s political overtones, inadvertently providing Fox News with fuel for its everlasting victimhood narrative. During the August 7 edition of Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle, host Laura Ingraham and Fox contributor Raymond Arroyo tore into the very premise of The Hunt, with Ingraham warning that “a new grisly Hollywood film could inspire more mass shootings.”

“Talk about insensitivity,” said Arroyo. “The Hunt is about a group of Middle American Trump voters who find themselves on a preserve where they are hunted by liberal elites. I wish I were making this up.” 

Later in the episode, Arroyo referred to the movie as “a revenge fantasy complete with blood splatter.”

The indication that the movie touched on politics primarily came from the Hollywood Reporter article, but the idea that it was meant as some sort of progressive “revenge fantasy” seemingly came out of nowhere. A synopsis posted to the film’s website made clear that the “elites” are the villains of the story and the “hunted” are the protagonists, as is usually the case in such The Most Dangerous Game knockoffs (see: The Purge series of films, The Hunger Games, The Running Man, Surviving the Game, and so on). 

But with the right-wing media narrative set, truth became irrelevant. In the coming days, Fox News would run nearly a dozen segments about the movie. During an August 9 episode of The Story with Martha MacCallum, The Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles said the film was proof that “liberal elites genuinely detest their fellow countrymen who are conservative.”

In addition to the Fox News segments, Trump and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel joined the fray, each criticizing the film they hadn’t seen in their own ways. 

On August 10, Universal scrapped plans to release the film entirely. In a statement posted to The Hunt’s website, the studio wrote that “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. … Now is not the right time.”

The studio had taken a pummeling based largely on a willful misunderstanding of who the film’s protagonists were. But in caving to right-wing demands, Universal may have made its public relations nightmare even worse. Never content to let a culture war victory go to waste, Fox continued its coverage of The Hunt, with the majority of its segments actually airing after the movie was shelved.

During the August 11 edition of Media Buzz, Fox News contributor William Bennett applauded the studio’s decision to have “the decency to pull it now” but claimed that it highlighted the problem of how “Hollywood pushes so far, it pushes people far.” While guest hosting the August 12 edition of The Ingraham Angle, Jason Chaffetz called The Hunt a “left-wing fetish film.” Prime-time host Sean Hannity said that “insulting the American people and their choices isn't going to work well” for Hollywood, and former Trump strategist Steve Bannon suggested that the film may have incited actual violence, saying, “Who knows what would have happened if that picture had come out.”

Reporting that followed the film’s cancellation illustrated just how afraid the studio is of right-wing media and their followers.

An August 14 article from The Hollywood Reporter explained how the film got canceled, citing the reaction to its August 6 article:

Following a THR story earlier that day on the altering of the film's marketing plan in the wake of a trio of mass shootings, Universal executives and the filmmakers began receiving death threats via email and on social media and immediately paused the campaign altogether. 

Sources say the studio's internal security force became involved, but outside law enforcement was not alerted. It appears that Universal did not foresee the maelstrom to come, including round-the-clock Fox News segments and tweets by President Trump seemingly directed at the title.

The story went on to note that the studio was apparently “reluctant to cave to the outrage of those who have not seen the finished film,” but decided that “it wasn’t worth the headaches.” 

Interestingly, the Hollywood Reporter also noted that Universal was less than a year out from its last brush with conservative backlash, that time related to First Man, a retelling of the Apollo 11 journey to the moon.

Before First Man’s release, right-wing media stoked outrage that the film wouldn’t depict the planting of the American flag on the lunar surface. “This is where our country’s going,” said Fox & Friends co-host Ainsley Earhardt months before the film hit theaters. “They don’t think America is great, they want to kneel for the flag, for the anthem. It was never great. This is the direction -- they’re scared to use the American flag. It’s Hollywood.”

The controversy surrounding First Man, which began after an article in The Telegraph questioned why astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin weren’t shown planting the American flag, was born of ignorance. The people making these criticisms hadn’t seen the movie, but their logic seemed to be that since the film didn’t show one specific moment from the moon landing, it was therefore trying to erase the American flag from history altogether. Earhardt’s comment suggested that the movie goes out of its way to not show the flag, as did a Breitbart article. HuffPost refuted this claim in an article highlighting at least 18 times that the American flag appeared in First Man, including on the moon. 

None of this stopped Fox News and right-wing websites from saturating the news with First Man content. The Daily Caller published 10 stories about the movie or its flag controversy; Breitbart published 19 articles that mentioned the film. The backlash to both movies was all part of the same right-wing strategy to paint Hollywood as a permanent foil to their audiences, fomenting anger among the masses.

For all the hand-wringing over “snowflake” liberals, the perils of “cancel culture,” or the ethics of boycotts by the left, right-wing equivalents are often ignored.

The Daily Wire wrote approvingly about conservatives boycotting Nike after the brand rethought its decision to release a shoe featuring a Betsy Ross American flag design. Unsurprisingly, the site was less enthusiastic about progressives boycotting Equinox gyms. 

When conservatives planned to boycott the NFL over Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem, Breitbart called it a “patriotic message”; when liberals boycotted over Kaepernick remaining unsigned, the site disapproved.

Among his many boycotts, disgraced former Fox host Bill O’Reilly once called for a boycott of media outlets that published stories about his sexual harassment reports. The anti-LGBTQ group American Family Association has been boycotting Target for years for not discriminating against transgender people. Fox News’ Todd Starnes once boycotted a restaurant after it stopped letting a church group use its venue to preach against gay people, but he also warned that Chick-fil-A was “under siege” by “militant gays” after the fast food chain was boycotted for its president’s anti-LGBTQ statements. And Hannity famously told his audience to destroy their Keurig coffee machines after the company stopped advertising on his show.

In reality, both progressives and conservatives have utilized protests, boycotts, and deplatforming. Even so, this strategy is often framed as being strictly used by liberals. Much of the criticism surrounding campus speech is built on the idea that the left is habitually overstepping. Complaints about political correctness and “identity politics” are often framed as problems emanating solely from the left when that’s simply not true.

The truth is that our society has an extremely asymmetric view of outrage culture, and that’s largely thanks to the ever-efficient right-wing feedback loop. To combat this one-sided perspective, journalists at mainstream news organizations need to start looking at complaints and popular outrage in a much more macro context. Until they do so, Fox News and others will continue to utilize selective political outrage to advance their agenda unchecked.