In recent weeks, as a firestorm of chatter — and questions — surrounding Angel Studios’ Sound of Freedom spread, Hollywood scrambled to understand how tiny indie movie seemingly emerged from nowhere to become the sleeper hit of the summer box office.
One major legacy movie studio was so interested in the topic that it commissioned a survey of social media discourse and audience reaction. “Overall, the online consumer response to Sound of Freedom has been less about the movie itself and more rooted in conspiracy theories and ongoing political/culture wars within the United States and the globe at large,” says the summary, which a source shared with The Hollywood Reporter but who did not want their studio to be identified.
Among other conclusions: right-leaning audiences dismiss criticisms of the movie from the left and mainstream press as the thoughts of “pedophiles, satanists and other malicious parties,” while left-leaning audiences found the movie’s messaging tactics to be aligned with “QAnon, racism, white supremacy, Christo-fascist, anti-Semitic and an overall deceitful work.”
Sound of Freedom — which has earned a staggering $164 million domestically through Aug. 6 — quietly opened in cinemas on July 4, beating Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny for the day. While it has done especially well in the Midwest and South, it has also done big business in California and other parts of the West (the Northeast has underindexed). To date, it has topped the domestic grosses of summer big budget features such as The Flash ($108 million), Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part 1 ($151 million) Transformers: Rise of the Beasts ($157 million).
The film stars The Passion of the Christ’s Jim Caviezel as the real-life Tim Ballard, who worked as an agent for the Department of Homeland Security before embarking on his own quest to bring child traffickers to justice. The film’s blockbuster performance has no doubt been boosted by Angel’s mastermind plan to change the way movies are distributed through its innovative “Pay It Forward” model, whereby people are urged to buy and then donate Sound of Freedom tickets for others to use. Those “others” can grab a code off the Pay It Forward website and then redeem it using major online ticketing services or an individual theater.
But how money is used from unredeemed tickets is at the company’s discretion, according to this standard disclaimer on the website: “Upon submitting my Pay It Forward contribution, I acknowledge and agree that Angel Studios will make reasonable efforts to use Pay It Forward ticket sales for the audience growth of the intended film or series. However, Angel Studios becomes the owner of all funds upon receipt and may use them at its sole discretion to further the Angel Studios’ mission of amplifying light through impactful stories.”
Sound of Freedom director Alejandro Monteverde and producer/star Eduardo Verástegui, who have known each other for years and are both from Mexico, spent an arduous eight years bringing the indie movie to the big screen, including cobbling together the financing for the $14.5 million film. Fox International made a distribution deal with the filmmakers in 2018, before the Disney merger closed in 2019. Disney ended up shelving the film’s theatrical release but allowed the filmmakers to buy the back rights.
Unable to find a home at another legacy studio or streamer, the Sound of Freedom team ultimately agreed in late March 2022 to go with Angel Studios, a Utah-based company that specializes in crowdfunding. Many Angel original series are faith-based, including the mega-hit The Chosen series.
Jared Geesey, Angel Studios senior VP of global distribution, believes Sound of Freedom will ultimately cross the $200 million mark in North America. And the movie hasn’t yet begun rolling out overseas. It is set to open across Latin America next month, where much of the film was shot (in the U.S., Latinos made up 37 percent of the audience in the movie’s second weekend). Angel has also announced opening dates for the U.K, Australia and South Africa, and is in the process of firming up plans for other territories (Angel is self-distributing everywhere but Australia and Africa, where it will work with a local distribution partner).
According to Angel’s website, more than 14.5 million tickets have been purchased in North America. But Geesey declined to say how many fall in the donated category except to suggest it isn’t an overwhelming number. “The vast majority of tickets are being bought by human, everyday people in a normal purchase flow,” Geesey tells THR. “We do not break out Pay It Forward tickets versus regular tickets because they’re the same thing. A ticket is a ticket whether you paid for it or someone else paid for it.”
According to Geesey, only redeemed tickets are counted when Angel reports grosses to Comscore, the industry record-keeper of box office grosses.
Many in Hollywood continue to be skeptical. “There should be more transparency,” says a studio distribution executive source. In addition to the issue of grosses, it’s hard to know how many people are actually watching the movie if we don’t know the number of tickets redeemed.” Earlier in the movie’s run, social media was rife with posts about near-empty auditoriums for supposedly sold-out shows, prompting numerous outlets to report on the issue. Such reports have since abated. Another studio executive tells THR that one major theater circuit confirmed this did happen earlier on in some instances, but not on a blanket scale.
Distributors and theater owners are more than intrigued by the potential of a Pay It Forward model, considering the precarious nature of the box office recovery. Indie distributor Magnolia Pictures is already copying Angel’s playbook, and urging those interested in the indie documentary Kokomo City to donate tickets. The doc, about four Black transgender sex workers, opened at the IFC Center in New York City over July 28-30 weekend before expanding to several other cities this past weekend, including San Francisco. For now, donated tickets can only be redeemed at the IFC Center and San Francisco’s Roxie Theater (the offer is expected to remain in place for the film’s full run).
“People are very grateful for all the momentum that Pay It Forward has created,” says Geesey.
It’s certainly not the first time in history a distributor or studio has asked people or companies to donate blocks of tickets for an individual, issue-driven movie, but it’s never been done on a wholesale basis. Angel also used the Pay It Forward ticket model earlier this year releasing its first film theatrically, the faith-based His Only Son. The movie did far more business than expected, grossing $12 million at the North American box office. As with Sound of Freedom, Angel has not said how many tickets were donated. Before its theatrical run, His Only Son raised more than $1.2 million from 1,863 people in a separate crowdfunding offering to cover for costs associated with marketing and releasing the film, according to Angel.
The Harmon brothers, part of a well-known Mormon family and founders of the Utah-based Angel empire, have a long and complicated relationship with Hollywood. Their previous company, the streaming service VidAngel, was sued by Disney, 20th Century Fox, Lucasfilm and Warner Bros. in 2016 for alleged copyright infringement after VidAngel developed filtering technology that allowed movies to be sanitized for its faith-based and conservative-leaning audiences. In 2019, a jury ordered VidAngel to pay $62 million in damages; a settlement was reached the following year, with VidAngel agreeing to pay the studios $10 million over 10 years. Angel Studios emerged from VidAngel bankruptcy proceedings and launched in March 2021.
The Harmons responded to the 2016 lawsuit by moving into crowdfunding to make original content. That included the first season of The Chosen, which raised more than $10.3 million by 2018, then the largest crowdfunded project in history. The three Chosen seasons boast an audience of more than 110 million people, including views outside of The Chosen and Angel apps (which are separate). And, as of September 2022, the franchise has generated $195.3 in revenue for the company (that includes licensing fees and a special theatrical engagement). The Chosen’s 2018 crowdfunding record was surpassed earlier this year by the animated biblical pic David, which has raised $50 million to date through Angel Studios (it is still in the pre-production phase). Angel is promising that David will be the most-viewed animated film in history and, as it often does, quotes the Bible in its crowdfunding pitch for the film. “Completing a major global theatrical release can feel insurmountable, but we face this giant with confidence that we ‘can do all things through Christ’ (Philippians 4: 13).”
Angel may be in the midst of having to pay off its $10 million debt to studios, but it still doesn’t hesitate to snark at Hollywood for being out of touch with what consumers really want in terms of entertainment (a mantra it has used time and time again through the years). “Investors invested over $10 million to produce The Chosen, which became a smash hit, being viewed over 100 million times and generating over $30 million dollars in revenue in 2020,” says Angel’s website. “In contrast, Hollywood produces most of Seth Rogen’s movies because Seth thought it would be fun and we know how most of those turn out.” Angel doesn’t provide a reason for taking aim at Rogen, who has a slew of box office wins, whether family credits including The Super Mario Bros. Movie, The Lion King and the Kung Fu Panda series or raunchy, R-rated fare (the Neighbors films, Knocked Up).
Actress and producer Ashley Bratcher, who is part of Hollywood’s faith-based filmmaker community and starred in the pro-life film Unplanned, says she had an unhappy experience with Angel Studios over the crowdfunding campaign for Pharma, a project from her production banner Simple Jane Films. The film is about Frances Kelsey, an employee of the Federal Drug Administration in the 1960s who risked her career to stop morning-sickness drug thalidomide from being approved. “Our team decided to leave Angel after we asked a lot of questions that they didn’t answer. There were mounting tensions as to who was handling the financing aspect and where the money was going,” she tells THR.
In June of this year, lawyers for Frankie’s Story — the name of Pharma’s production entity — presented Angel Studios with a notice to terminate their distribution agreement for Pharma based on fraudulent inducement, according to redacted documents reviewed by THR. The document alleges that Angel executives stated they would not support the live launch of the crowdfunding offering unless the Pharma team changed the terms of offering in a way the Pharma team believed would have “significantly benefited the Angel Acceleration Fund.”
A spokesman for Angel Studios tells THR that Pharma did not meet certain thresholds. “Pharma launched a crowdfund and raised approximately $400K, which was below their $5 million funding goal and also did not meet the Angel Acceleration Fund’s investment approval criteria. The AAF is a separate but affiliated organization that provides the potential of additional funding for Angel Studios projects outside of crowdfunding. AAF controls their investment choices independently,” the spokesperson said. “Given the above, Angel Studios has offered to release Pharma from their distribution agreement to enable them to pursue other options for creating their film. We wish the entire Pharma team and project the best of success.”
While Sound of Freedom‘s production had already been financed when it arrived at Angel, Angel did use another crowd-funding model — similar to His Only Son — to raise money for “P&A” (prints and advertising). That inadvertently has led to bad headlines for the studio after a person thanked in the credits as a backer — a perk provided to anyone investing $500 or more — was arrested in Missouri and charged with child kidnapping. The charges were brought last month, but it wasn’t until Aug. 3 that stories began highlighting Missouri man Fabian Marta’s contribution and his alleged connection to Tim Ballard, who is the subject of the film.
On Aug. 4, Angel Studios released a statement without specifically referring to Marta’s arrest. “Just as anyone can invest in the stock market, everyone who meets the legal criteria can invest in Angel Studios projects. One of the perks of investing was the ability to be listed in the credits,” Neal Harmon, CEO of Angel Studios, said in the statement. He also noted that 6,678 people invested an average of $501 in the marketing fund, which totaled $6 million.
Angel along with filmmakers also dispute that Sound of Freedom is a QAnon movie, although it has been widely discussed on QAnon message boards. And in late 2021, Caviezel spoke at a QAnon convention in Las Vegas, where he invoked the QAnon slogan, “The storm is upon us.”
“Anyone who has seen Sound of Freedom knows that it has nothing to do with conspiracy theories,” says Geesey. Mira Sorvino — who another star in the film — disavowed “QAnon & any hate speech” in a July 12 tweet. She also urge people to get involved in stopping trafficking, a “worldwide and local atrocity.”
Even weeks after Sound of Freedom arrived in theaters, it is still succeeding in finding new audience members to partake.
At a recent showing of the movie at AMC Century City 15 in Los Angeles, a majority of guests stayed in their seats when the movie finished and the credits began rolling. Caviezel soon appeared in a taped three-minute video explaining Pay It Forward, and personally encouraged people to purchase tickets for others. “We don’t have big studio money to market this movie, but we have you and the baton has now been passed to you,” the message says. Later, the actor says, “Now, I know it’s weird because we’re in a theater, but feel free to pull out your phones and scan this QR code. We don’t want finances to be the reason someone doesn’t see this movie.”
At least a dozen patrons used their phones out to capture the code.
—Chris Gardner contributed to this report.
Aug. 8, 2: 55 p.m.: This story was updated with revised language regarding The Chosen and Angel apps.