In our ongoing conversations about movies, it seems the only thing missing is the movies themselves.
By now everyone knows that Universal has canceled the release of “The Hunt,” in which a group of “deplorables” is hunted and killed by deranged elites. After the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, Ohio, the studio stopped marketing the film, whose trailer featured well-heeled travelers embarking on a creepy human safari. Then Fox News and President Trump glommed on to the gathering storm, accusing “The Hunt” of fomenting violence and partisan hatred — presumably unaware that the film was far more likely to skewer liberal pieties than the sensibilities of their MAGA supporters.
From the misreading of “The Hunt’s” politics to Universal’s cave — not to mention the dubious decision to make the film in the first place — the entire episode played like a colossal, collective self-own. (In pulling “The Hunt,” the studio said “now is not the right time to release this film.” Considering that they acquired the rights in 2018, when more than 300 mass shootings occurred in the United States, one wonders when they thought there was ever a right time.)
It also played a bit like deja vu. Barely a year ago, another Universal film, “First Man,” was being dragged by Trump, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and other right-wing critics upset that the film, about the Apollo 11 space mission, didn’t feature a shot of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin planting the U.S. flag on the moon. Never mind that “First Man” wound up being full of images of the flag, or that it presented the kind of stirring, patriotic story of ingenuity and courage that conservative viewers might have adored: Sight unseen, the reviews were in.
Make those “pre-views.”
Today, the forces of entertainment marketing, social media and grievance culture are increasingly colliding, with the casualty being the movies themselves. Why wait to actually see “The Irishman,” Martin Scorsese’s long-gestating project about Jimmy Hoffa and the mob, when you can start fact-checking it — and fact-checking the fact-checks — months before it opens? Suspicious that “Adam,” a Sundance film about a heterosexual teenager who passes as transgender as he embarks on an affair with a lesbian, might traffic in homophobic or anti-trans tropes? Save time and start the boycott now.
The studios often play their own self-defeating role in the cycle: Desperate to build viral awareness, they eagerly recruit movie audiences online and at fan gatherings such as Comic-Con, releasing trailers earlier and earlier to lock in eyeballs and excitement. Universal has proved particularly skilled at this strategy, masterfully engaging core audiences to make films such as “Twilight” and “Straight Outta Compton” huge hits.
But harnessing social media, fan service and buzzy, hot-button controversy is a lot like riding a tiger — and as anyone can tell you who’s gone viral one moment only to be canceled the next, sometimes the beast bites back.
Gone are the days when people would decide to see a movie (or not), then discuss. We now discuss whether people have a right to see a movie in the first place. Heaven forfend we should be confronted with the art itself: Film has been dematerialized, reduced to a thousand points of metadata that we can argue about in the safe, self-righteous abstract.
Culture has always been weaponized, of course, and it should cause discomfort, even anger. But we’ve reached a state of constant pre-outrage and hair-trigger offense, ready to strangle perceived offenders in the crib before they can succeed or fail on their own merits.
Strangely enough, Universal’s decision to pull “The Hunt” coincided with a spate of conspiracy theories surrounding the suicide of well-connected financier and registered sex offender Jeffrey Epstein — theories that were also recklessly amplified by our Tweeter in Chief when he had finished with Hollywood.
As my colleague Margaret Sullivan noted in her column on Tuesday, the best course of action for those who would be well-informed was to stay off their computers until the facts could be confirmed. “In journalism, speed kills,” she wisely advised. “Be skeptical. Don’t spread shaky information.”
A version of that sage advice applies to movies and the people who love them — and make them, and write about them. It’s human nature to speculate about hotly anticipated events such as a new Scorsese movie; throw Robert De Niro and Al Pacino into the mix and the curiosity reaches a level reminiscent of the hysteria that greeted the all-female “Ghostbusters” reboot in 2016. Of course, in that notorious case, the movie turned out to be just a modestly amusing family flick — and nowhere near as dire a desecration as its pre-viewers suggested.
In her column, Sullivan called for a “slow journalism” movement, whereby consumers of news make the self-disciplined decision to ignore hot-button trending topics and other algorithmic manipulations in favor of waiting to get a fuller, more completely reported story.
Or a fully completed, actual movie. What if fans, critics and marketers agreed on a “slow movies” movement, making a vow to stop feeding the content beast — whether on social media or 24/7 cable channels — with the kind of rank speculation they thrive on (and the studios welcome as free publicity)? What if we observed the simple, common-sense rule of reserving commentary on a thing until we’ve actually seen it firsthand? What if we reframed film, not as disposable content or comment-fodder but as entertainment or — call me madcap — an art form?
Of course, not all films are art, or even entertaining. Viewers will always be the final arbiters of those distinctions. At least if pre-viewers give them a chance.