(Bloomberg) -- Sound of Freedom, a film about child sex trafficking, has turned into an unlikely summer hit, riding a wave of interest from conservatives while being derided by critics for its star’s links to QAnon.
The picture, a dramatized account of activist Tim Ballard’s efforts to rescue children from the sex trade, has taken in $100 million in US theaters since its July 4 debut, against a production budget of about $14.5 million. Last weekend, it finished in second place behind Paramount Pictures’ new Mission: Impossible, bringing in twice as much ticket revenue as Walt Disney Co.’s latest Indiana Jones film.
The movie, in which the lead characters cite spirituality as a reason to fight the sex crimes, has been heavily promoted to evangelicals and conservatives. Part of the film’s success also lies in a platform its distributor, Angel Studios, developed called Pay It Forward that allows donors to buy tickets for strangers who can see the film for free at their local theaters.
The movie has also generated controversy, including complaints from some fans that theater chains are sabotaging screenings with equipment breakdowns. AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. Chief Executive Officer Adam Aron has denied that.
Media accounts have pointed out that the film’s star, Jim Caviezel, has made statements supporting QAnon conspiracy theories about a global cabal of pedophiles. Caviezel has said QAnon has “nothing to do with our film.”
Tom Nunan, a lecturer with the School of Theater, Film and Television at the University of California at Los Angeles, said the company’s early outreach to conservative and religious groups paid off.
“It’s clear evidence of a filmmaker knowing their audience and how to reach them,” he said.
Jeffrey Harmon, chief marketing officer for Angel Studios, said social-media comments he’s read indicate that the picture is resonating beyond the traditional fans for faith-based films.
“This one has taken on a life of its own,” Harmon said in an interview. “You see Marines, veterans, saying, ‘We’ve got to help these kids.’”
The picture is the work of filmmakers from Mexico, including actor-producer Eduardo Verástegui and director Alejandro Monteverde. They shot the movie in Colombia in 2018, with the backing of several wealthy investors.
21st Century Fox Corp. held distribution rights before selling the bulk of its entertainment assets to Walt Disney Co. in 2019. The filmmakers reacquired the rights and signed Angel Studios, based in Provo, Utah, to distribute it in theaters.
Harmon co-founded Angel Studios along with his brothers, Neal, who is chief executive officer, and Jordan, who is president. They had previously run VidAngel, a streaming service that cuts sex, violence and bad language from films. VidAngel was sued by Hollywood studios, including Disney and Fox, for distributing their pictures without authorization.
VidAngel declared bankruptcy and was sold, but the brothers gained experience in marketing faith-based content such as The Chosen, a series about the life of Jesus that has run in theaters and on streaming services like Netflix.
To promote Sound of Freedom, Angel Studios raised $5 million from investors. While backers stand to get 120% of their money back, their biggest service has been as evangelists for the film, according to Harmon.
“Those people become your advocates,” Harmon said. “They drag people into theater even if they only put in $50.”
Angel Studios has also given out screener copies of the film to conservative commentators and social-media influencers. Former president Donald Trump hosted a screening in New Jersey this week. Churches are also being given that option.
When a particular city or theater sees a bump in ticket sales, Angel Studios doubles down on local marketing, which includes social and traditional media. Harmon said that’s a trick he learned earlier this year when His Only Son, a film about the biblical figure Abraham, did very well in theaters in New York and Philadelphia, not normal hotspots for religious pictures.
At a recent screening of Sound of Freedom on a Tuesday night in Los Angeles, the AMC website showed the theater as full, but some seats were empty. Some guests showed up as much as 50 minutes past the film’s start time.
A spokesperson for Angel Studios said bulk sales to businesses, churches and other groups can result in no-shows. Two college students at the screening said they saw an ad on Instagram for free tickets and took advantage of the company’s Pay It Forward ticket option.
At the end of the film, lead actor Caviezel, who is famous for playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, appears in a special message thanking the audience for attending and urging them to donate to the Pay It Forward feature on the Angel Studios website.
“We believe this movie has the power to be a huge step forward toward ending child trafficking,” he said. “We don’t want lack of finances to be the reason someone doesn’t see this movie.”
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