The Hunt’s cancellation and Hollywood’s history of self-censorship, explained

A man wearing a gag appears to be in pain while a woman wearing a similar gag stands close behind him.The Hunt was pulled off the release calendar by Universal after backlash — and tweets from the president. | Universal Pictures

The movie industry has tried for a century to keep the government out of the box office.

Less than two months before The Hunt’s scheduled late-September release, Universal Pictures decided to indefinitely postpone it. The film’s premise — in which “elites” hunt “normal” people for sport — first garnered a smattering of criticism from left-leaning social media accounts for its apparent intent to valorize MAGA-style protagonists.

But hours after Fox News anchor Laura Ingraham expressed outrage over the premise of the film on her show, the devoted Fox News viewer in the White House happened to tweet about “Hollywood,” declaring that “they create their own violence, and then try to blame others.” Which probably meant he was tweeting about The Hunt. (And which is a little rich, coming from someone who famously fast-forwarded through his favorite movie, the 1988 Jean-Claude Van Damme martial arts flick Bloodsport, so he could watch only the extremely violent scenes.)

A day later, Universal announced it was canceling its plans to release the film, which had originally been titled Red State vs. Blue State. In a carefully worded statement released Saturday, the studio announced: “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.” (The statement did leave the door open to a future release.)

Ostensibly, the move had something to do with recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio (particularly because the El Paso shooting was apparently politically motivated). But even if (and it’s a big if) the timing was accidental — even if the plan to halt the film’s release was underway before President Trump’s thumbs started tapping — in the public eye, correlation seems awfully close to causation.

Movies have seen their release dates pushed before because of tragic news events, but a major movie studio putting the kibosh on a high-profile release right after the president seemingly tweeted about it is something new altogether. And the precedent it sets — in which powerful government leaders can theoretically shut down a movie’s release because they heard something on TV about a trailer for a movie nobody’s seen — is a move toward government censorship that flies in the face of First Amendment freedoms.

Government censorship is something Hollywood has always feared, and Universal’s decision to effectively self-censor wasn’t unique. In fact, the history of Hollywood is a tale of self-censorship, the story of an industry that’s tried all kinds of tactics almost since its birth to keep the government out of its business (and its profits). Universal’s actions in response to pressure — no matter how direct or indirect — may be a harbinger of things to come.

Nearly a century ago, Hollywood decided to censor itself

Censorship is best understood as the government inhibiting the speech of its citizens in the public square, based on a set of rules defined by those in power to serve their own purposes. That kind of state-driven censorship hasn’t, on the whole, been part of the American movie industry, as it is in other parts of the world.

But to keep government censorship at bay, self-censorship has been part of Hollywood’s business almost from the start.

All the way back in 1922, the major movie studios banded together to form an organization that would eventually come to be known as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Most Americans know the MPAA as the organization that assigns ratings (like R or PG) to films. It’s not a government agency; it’s an independent trade organization. At its founding, its members represented between 70 and 80 percent of all the films made in the US, and former Postmaster General Will H. Hays was its first president.

What’s interesting is why the organization was founded in the first place. Seven years earlier, in 1915, the Supreme Court had ruled in Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio that motion pictures were business, not art, and therefore not protected speech under the First Amendment.

That ruling opened the door to the possibility of censorship of the movie industry — meaning the state exercising control over speech and free artistic expression. Congress had started to explore creating a national censorship board, much like smaller, more localized film-focused censorship boards that had sprung up around the country.

The industry had also been plagued by offscreen scandals, the most famous of which concerned the wildly popular comedic actor Fatty Arbuckle, who in 1921 attended a Hollywood party at which an actress named Virginia Rappe died. Arbuckle was charged with her death. It was Hollywood’s first major scandal, and one that was soon echoed by many others. (For more on the stories that swirled around these scandals and the truths beneath them, check out season three of Karina Longworth’s excellent podcast You Must Remember This.) Such stories, often sensationally and luridly reported in the press, increased the impression that Hollywood needed to be corralled, one way or another.

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and his defense lawyers at his first trial in November 1921.Library of Congress
Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and his defense lawyers at his first trial in November 1921.

And in both the era of silent movies and the early going of the subsequent sound era, objections to sexualized or violent content had raised the ire of a morally conscious public. (It’s no mistake that this period coincided with Prohibition, which was passed in 1920 and lasted until 1933.) Film studios feared that Hollywood’s dirty reputation would not only harm the revenue of their fledgling industry but also curb the interest of potential investors.

So the origins of what was originally called the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA) were rooted in the self-appointed task of “cleaning up” Hollywood. Shortly after the organization was established, Hays and his fellow MMPDA members announced that they would post an “ultimatum” to the film industry. It would have to clean up its act onscreen and off — or else.

They cast their mission in explicitly moral terms.

“Mr. Hays decided about three weeks ago that he should take some stand that would guarantee clean films to the public,” a New York Times story reported on June 5, 1922. The story noted that the measures included setting up “strict censorship in each producing company” and in Hays’s own office.

“These pictures now being made will come out soon and they will be the proof either of our honesty of purpose or of our failure; they will be the proof either of our ability to correct our evils ourselves or of our inability to run our own business,” Hays’s “notice” stated, as quoted in the Times story. It went on to say that the most important order of business for Hollywood was to make sure that their forthcoming movies would “clearly show successful effort toward establishing and maintaining the highest possible moral and artistic standard.”

In other words, their content and themes would be squeaky clean.

The eventual set of guidelines would be come to called the Motion Picture Production Code, or the “Hays Code,” adopted in 1930 but not enforced until 1934. The years before the enforcement began are now considered Hollywood’s “pre-code” era, and during those years, filmmakers often pushed boundaries with what they depicted onscreen — everything from mob violence and drug addiction to sexualized content. Much of this would be termed “thematic content” in today’s movie industry, but in the pre-code era, no one cohesive system of classification existed.

But eventually the code became the de facto way of ensuring that movies coming out of Hollywood would be stamped with a seal of approval. In nearly all cases, if your film was produced by MMPDA members and released in members’ theaters (and at that time, the same companies often owned both the means of production and the means of distribution), it had been approved by the MMPDA’s code enforcement office and bore its seal of approval.

That meant that for decades there were all kinds of things you couldn’t show onscreen in Hollywood or your film wouldn’t get released; in other words, it would be censored by the industry itself. The list of forbidden content is long. But here is a small selection of things you couldn’t depict onscreen because of the Hays Code:

  • You couldn’t show the aftermath of sexual activity, which meant pregnancy and childbirth were off limits.
  • Crime and bad behavior had to be punished by the end of the film.
  • You couldn’t use the word “virgin.”
  • You couldn’t mock religion, which most often meant that religion wasn’t depicted at all lest it be interpreted as mocking.
  • You couldn’t show anyone consuming alcohol unless the plot called for it — because the film was a cautionary tale and the drinker would get his comeuppance.
  • You couldn’t have a revenge-driven plots set in modern times. (One byproduct of this mandate was that a lot of Westerns were made; by nature, they were historical and thus okay.)
  • You couldn’t show interracial or homosexual relationships. (This also made it easy for studios to avoid hiring nonwhite actors, since there weren’t many parts for them.)
  • The US flag had to be held in utmost respect.

The code had other restrictions, but as you can see, its guidelines ranged from sort of understandable to outright offensive. Some of them required the original versions of movies like Casablanca to be drastically recut in order to be released.

The famous line from Gone With the Wind, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” was very nearly cut due to the Hays Code.MGM
The famous line from Gone With the Wind, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” was very nearly cut due to the Hays Code.

Some producers tied themselves in knots trying to subvert the code, the history of which is fascinating. Plenty of others simply accepted it.

But self-censorship is only so effective in the face of the almighty dollar. So some filmmakers began to risk releasing their movies without the code seal of approval, especially as time wore on and the appetite for “unapproved” films grew. Otto Preminger’s 1955 film The Man With the Golden Arm, for instance, was about the banned topic of drug addiction. It didn’t get the seal of approval. But the reviews were good, a few theaters booked it, people went to see it, and its star, Frank Sinatra, wound up with an Oscar nomination.

Eventually, thanks in large part to the success of movies that aggressively bent the rules, the code started to become obsolete. In 1959, the unapproved cross-dressing comedy Some Like It Hot, with its racketeering, gambling, and even homosexual undertones, was a massive hit.

It wasn’t long before some members of Congress began discussing ways to regulate films. The government was thinking of getting involved again. If Hollywood couldn’t self-censor, then maybe the US legal system would.

Self-censorship didn’t work. So in 1968, the MPAA ratings system was established. It’s been controversial ever since.

That threat of government censorship, along with two Supreme Court cases both decided in April 1968 — Interstate Circuit v. Dallas and Ginsberg v. New York, which both dealt with citywide censorship ordinances and the marketing of content deemed obscene — prompted the film industry to take some action in the waning days of the self-censoring code. The former MMPDA, which had been rebranded as the MPAA in 1945, started working on a new plan.

The most significant change, driven by then-MPAA president Jack Valenti, was to replace self-censorship with self-classification in the form of a ratings system. Launched in November 1968, it served as a precursor to the system we still use today. Filmmakers would voluntarily submit their films to the MPAA and its raters would watch the film and categorize it depending on its themes and content. Then theaters could display the rating, and moviegoers could use it to make choices about what to see. It’s a content rating, not a quality rating, but it at least tells you something about what’s in the movie.

The MPAA outlined two main objectives in its ratings system that have remained steadfast over its half-century of rating movies:

  1. By performing the work of viewing and rating the films themselves, the MPAA says it is keeping the government from getting involved in freedom of artistic expression.
  2. By providing this information to consumers, the MPAA says it is helping parents make informed decisions — the language is always cast in terms of parents and children — about their children’s entertainment choices.

Protecting artistic expression from government intervention and providing informational tools to parents seem, at least on the surface, like good aims, something that most people could agree on.

But the MPAA ratings have long been controversial, partly because societal attitudes about what kinds of content should be factored into ratings keeps changing. In 2013, for instance, the ratings system started to account for onscreen smoking of cigarettes. That would have been hard to fathom in smoky 1968.

Similarly, if you’ve recently watched Back to the Future, rated PG and first released in 1985 — a year after the MPAA instituted the PG-13 rating — you might have been startled to realize a PG-rated movie could contain that many profanities, on top of violence and uncomfortably suggestive scenes, such as the one in which Marty’s mother (as a teenager) tries to kiss him after he travels back in time. And that’s true of lots of films that initially received a PG rating, whether because PG-13 hadn’t been invented yet (as in the case of 1975’s Jaws or 1981’s Mommie Dearest) or apparently because of the tastes and preferences of the raters at the time (see also Beetlejuice, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Big, all released in 1988).

Back to the Future would never be rated PG today.Universal Pictures
Back to the Future would never be rated PG today.

It seems all but certain that many of these films would garner a PG-13 rating from the MPAA if they were released today. But that’s not not just because of the content. It’s also because PG-13 movies make the most money.

Whether or not the perceptions are accurate, a PG rating indicates to the market that it’s a “family” movie, or a film for older kids who’ve aged out of the toddler set; a G rating seems firmly planted in “for young kids only” territory; and an R rating, by default, tends to restrict who’s in the audience. But a PG-13 rating works like a broader signal for audiences: This is a movie for teens and grown-ups, but it’s not too serious, or too graphic, or the kind of movie you can’t just send your teenager off to see by themselves.

Consequently, studios like to release PG-13 movies. They’re trying to capture the widest swath of possible audience members. They want big returns on their big-budget investments.

There are other ways in which the MPAA’s system is controversial. At times, films released in close proximity to one another seem to have been inconsistently judged, and the MPAA has been sharply criticized throughout its five decades for the ways it applies its standards.

For example, language is the easiest thing for the MPAA to monitor, but the organization’s approach to doing so can be frustratingly baroque. A PG-13 movie can contain one (and only one) “fuck,” as long as it’s used as an expletive and not to describe a sexual act. Any more — in any context at all, even in a film about historical war — and the film gets bumped up to an R rating, which is how relatively benign recent films like A Ghost Story, Once, and Eighth Grade wound up rated R, while films like the violent superhero flick Suicide Squad or the semi-raunchy studio comedy Night School squeak by with a PG-13 rating.

But the biggest criticism — and the most pertinent, when we’re talking about a movie like The Hunt — has to do with the contrast between how sexual content and violent content are rated. The system treats sexual content much more harshly than violent content. A PG-13 movie cannot contain any nudity, but it can contain some violence, as long as there’s no blood or grisly images (the ratings descriptions often call this “cartoonish” violence). All sexual content other than relatively mild innuendo garners an R.

And even within the category of sex, not all content is created equal. An R-rated movie may contain nudity, but until recently, onscreen full frontal nudity was almost always reserved for female genitalia, not male (which you may still see in an R-rated movie, but it’s always been rare, particularly when it comes to black men).

The ratings parameters also seem much more squeamish about depictions of women’s sexual pleasure than men’s. Scenes of women masturbating and of cunnilingus have more often been subjected to a harsher rating than their male equivalents — and have sometimes been cut down by filmmakers in order to avoid the NC-17 rating, which would virtually guarantee that few people will see the film, since many theater owners refuse to exhibit them.

Still, it’s the ratings system’s lax standards in one category that are especially pertinent in 2019, including in the case of The Hunt: violence.

The effects of the way the ratings system treats violence rarely curtails offscreen violence

In February 2018, in the wake of mass shootings in Florida, President Trump met with lawmakers about ways to reduce mass shootings and pointed to violence in films as a cause. “You see these movies, they’re so violent, and yet a kid is able to see the movie if sex isn’t involved,” Trump said. “But killing is involved. And maybe they have to put a rating system for that.”

Setting aside the lack of a credible link between gun violence onscreen and offscreen — as well as the fact that “they” do have a ratings system for that, and have for a half-century — Trump wasn’t entirely wrong. Simply put, there’s a lot of gun violence in American films.

And it’s not just in R-rated films. (Incidentally, The Hunt appears not to have received a rating before its release was canceled, but the trailer seems to indicate it would merit an R.) An illuminating study published in January 2017 by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania found that there was more gun violence in the top-grossing PG-13 movies — like, say, every entry in the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe — than in the top-grossing R-rated films.

Captain America: Civil WarMarvel Studios
PG-13 rated movies stick to cartoonish violence to avoid getting the R-rating.

Furthermore, because a PG-13 rating is more desirable to movie studios than an R rating, the study found that films tended to erase the consequences of gun violence, such as blood and suffering, in order to secure the lower rating.

The research noted that while studies have not yet identified the potential effects of films that glorify the use of guns, “the American Academy of Pediatrics has noted the large body of research showing that repeatedly viewing violent media content can influence some youth to become more aggressive.” In the wake of many mass shootings, American politicians have repeatedly tried to link violent films with violent actions, even without the research to support it; for instance, in 1999, following the Columbine school shooting, President Bill Clinton announced that he’d partnered with the national theater owners organization, which had agreed that teens would be required to show ID for entry to R-rated films.

The 2017 Annenberg report called for “research into the MPAA’s apparent belief that bloodless gun violence perpetrated by comic book characters is less harmful than gun violence that shows blood and other impacts on more realistic characters.”

But at the same time, the profitable relationship between the gun industry and Hollywood production companies was carefully documented in a 2017 Hollywood Reporter article — including supplying guns to Hollywood films and participating in product placement. And there’s a similar, well-documented relationship between Hollywood and the US military, ranging from films receiving military backing to the Pentagon’s long history of cooperating with filmmakers — and allegedly then leaning on studios to influence screenplays toward promoting the military and militarism. You can’t draw a straight line from one to the other, but the gun and military links must at least be kept in mind when evaluating how the MPAA views onscreen violence.

But the purpose of the ratings system remains: To keep the government out of the business of regulating Hollywood and to give consumers the full power to choose how they spend their entertainment dollars. Which is precisely what actions like Universal’s choice to delay The Hunt indefinitely may place in jeopardy.

Universal’s decision to delay The Hunt might break some unfortunate new ground in self-censorship

As many commentators have already pointed out, though we have essentially no idea what happens in The Hunt, there’s little to no way the movie actually depicts awesome rich liberals successfully hunting down redneck Trump fans, then trading high-fives and going home in their Priuses to drink lattes. Trailers are designed to withhold details so you still have something to look forward to when you arrive at the theater, and this movie was co-written by one of the most famously twisty writers working today (Damon Lindelof, of Lost and The Leftovers) and one of his frequent collaborators. Anyone who paused for half a second to think about that would likely realize the trailer and the premise weren’t the whole story.

But the point wasn’t accuracy. The point was outrage. And as last year’s not dissimilar First Man debacle shows, good-faith arguing about “liberal Hollywood” movies is not what Fox and its friends, including President Trump, are after.

Yet whether or not you think a movie like The Hunt should even be made — and I think that’s a point on which reasonable people may have justifiable disagreement — a few moments’ reflection suggest that Universal shouldn’t have canceled the film’s release in this manner.

For all of its flaws, and they are many, the MPAA’s current ratings system is set up to provide freedom to both artists and audiences. Filmmakers get to make the movies they want to make. Nobody is forced to see them, or blocked from seeing them by the government. (Yes, many theaters have rules about who is allowed to buy tickets to PG-13 and R-rated movies, but those rules are set by agreements between the MPAA and the theater owners, not at the state or federal level.) Everyone gets to self-govern. The system, despite its problematic tendencies, still works.

Over 50% of the films rated by the MPAA in its 50-year history have been rated R.MPAA
The ratings system is designed to let consumers make decisions.

And if audiences hate a movie or object to its content or think it’s inappropriate to release it, they’re simply free to not show up — to “vote” in the way that Hollywood understands best: with their hard-earned cash.

Obviously, President Trump is perfectly free to have his own opinion about The Hunt and Bloodsport and any other movie he wishes to love or decry, whether or not he’s parroting what he sees on TV. But when Universal pulled The Hunt from the release schedule the day after he tweeted about it, the studio indicated, even if it was unintentional, that the head of the state actually does have input into what gets released and what doesn’t.

By now it’s practically axiomatic to say that if this scenario had unfolded the other way around, with a left-leaning president making public comments that appeared to result in a studio pulling a movie because, say, Rachel Maddow objected to it, Fox would be up in arms. But even without partisanship in play, Universal’s move sets up the rest of the industry to be battered about by the whims of politicians, in direct opposition to Hollywood’s historical efforts to keep state intervention at bay. And it fundamentally mistrusts moviegoers and their ability to choose which films they pay to see.

Of course, this all may be pointless speculating about the future. Streaming services (which are not beholden to the rules set by theater owners) can release whatever they want, without ratings, for a niche and specialized audience. I suspect that a fracturing of our “mainstream” entertainment along political lines is on the horizon. But for now, if Hollywood wants to keep the government out of its business and if audiences want the same, then buckling to perceived pressure is no way to do it. The studios, you might say, would do well to stick to their guns.

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