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The Sound of Freedom Effect
Photo by Denise Jans / Unsplash

The Sound of Freedom Effect

How the summer movie season’s surprise hit further alienates the Right from what’s left of America’s cultural fabric.

At this point in its box-office run, Sound of Freedom has likely become the highest-grossing film in the history of cinema that most of its target audience saw for free in theaters. Buoyed by its distributor Angel Studios’s much-discussed “pay it forward” ticketing campaign, the movie has sustained an enviable reach thanks to fans who want to spread its gospel by purchasing tickets for those of lesser means.

However, it’s also a movie awash in cognitive dissonance, a bona fide hit that built its success on claims of suppression, and a film about the world’s most abhorrent crime marketed as a must-see for the whole family. It may well be the resounding success culture warriors have longed for. But by embracing a movie that has achieved its victories largely through a campaign of veiled accounting, manufactured outrage, and synthetic altruism, the Right has paved the way for its own self-inflicted unraveling.

“I think we can make Sound of Freedom the Uncle Tom’s Cabin of child sex slavery,” actor Jim Caviezel proclaims in the film’s mid-credits sequence before introducing a QR code that invites viewers to pay it forward. This moment is evidence enough that Sound of Freedom is not just another movie with Christian undertones that has surprised Hollywood with its box-office grosses. It’s a movement that has attracted a fervent fanbase ready to defend it against enemies real and imagined. But, like the film that preceded it, something about Caviezel’s call to arms seems off. He passionately delivers his lines while maintaining a detached gaze on an offscreen teleprompter, looking more like someone spoon-fed him talking points than an actor speaking about his own convictions. 

Since Sound of Freedom’s release, a groundswell of supporters has taken to social media to share stories of Hollywood’s alleged top-down efforts to stifle the film’s message–a coordinated campaign in which everyone in the business from the studio heads to suburban multiplex popcorn jockeys are complicit. Intentional theater HVAC outages abound that surely have nothing to do with the summer heat. Ticket apps show sold-out screenings for half-empty auditoriums. Fire alarms cause evacuations at a time when unaccompanied minors on summer vacation are left to roam lobbies unattended. The accusations have reached such a fever pitch that they merited an article in Newsweek in which AMC Theaters CEO Adam Aron and Angel Studios thoroughly debunked the conspiracy.

In a time of toxic fandom, a cult of victimization surrounding buzzy films has become rather rote. But Sound of Freedom is not the type of tentpole adaptation of a comic book or video game that has already amassed an army of purists. It’s a low-budget action flick based on the life of Tim Ballard, a former DHS agent who went rogue to bust a child sex trafficking ring in Columbia and founded the controversial organization Operation Underground Railroad.

The film’s most vocal white knights are not the oft-derided basement-dwelling neckbeards with pronouns in their bios, but MAGA-adjacent wannabee influencers whose feeds are otherwise filled with liberal use of the word snowflake—the very group who purport to be most opposed to the politics of victimhood. Given that the film has made $160 million in just over a month and is set to outgross such much-ballyhooed intended summer hits as Fast X, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, and even Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning - Part I, any attempts at sabotage have thus far been woefully ineffective. 

When Angel Studios entered into a deal to distribute Sound of Freedom, the film’s status as David vs. Goliath triumph was already baked in. Filmed in 2018 with financing from 20th Century Fox, the $14.5 million project became a casualty of the studio’s merger with Disney, which spawned an unofficial, yet quite effective, marketing strategy that paints the film as the one they didn’t want you to see when Mickey & Co. became a boogeyman for the Right in the intervening years. 

After remaining shelved for a half-decade, Angel picked up the rights earlier this year. For the studio founded in 2021 after the success of The Chosen, the popular television series about the life of Jesus, the acquisition seemed like an ambitious departure. Unlike larger studios, Angel relies on a unique crowdfunding model that, in some cases, has led to a 120% payout to contributors. Such a production structure was unthinkable before the SEC’s 2015 decision to allow individuals to invest in films through the “Reg A+” process, a revision of longstanding law spurred by the success of Kickstarter and the bizarre phenomenon of celebrities like actor Zack Braff and Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas soliciting donations to finance their dream projects. 

To its credit, Angel has been one of the few media companies to capitalize on the potential of the SEC’s more populist approach to film investing, setting itself up as a highish-quality alternative to Hollywood that commands nationwide multiplex screens with modest successes like His Only Son, a retelling of the Abraham/Isaac story, and re-edited feature-length versions of The Chosen. Thanks to Sound of Freedom’s box-office take, Angel has primed itself to become a faith-based iteration of Summit Entertainment, which transformed into a formidable Hollywood player after the runaway success of Twilight, or New Line Cinema, the studio nicknamed “The House Freddy built” when A Nightmare on Elm Street revived slasher movies in the mid-1980s (both eventually ended up as subsidiaries of Lionsgate and Warner Bros. respectively).

However, Twilight’s sparkling vampires and Freddy Krueger became phenomena because their creators cleverly subverted genres and crafted characters in ways that organically built fanbases. Their franchises’ production companies never had to resort to complex marketing plans that provided free tickets under the guise of raising awareness about current political issues. 

In the weeks leading up to Sound of Freedom’s release, Angel used its existing crowdfunding platforms to urge its followers to purchase additional tickets so that those who may not otherwise see the film could. Its goal was to sell two million donated tickets to symbolize the same number of children currently enslaved around the world before the film hit theaters (the source of this statistic remains unclear). Through taking a very public stand against child sex slavery, Angel has been able to bolster Sound of Freedom’s box office take far beyond the impressive domestic grosses of other faith-based and adjacent hits like I Can Only Imagine ($83.5 million) and last winter’s The Jesus Revolution ($52.1 million)—more accurate benchmarks of where the film would have likely ended up if the studio had given it a traditional release. 

Angel’s website for Sound of Freedom boasts an admissions counter that, at press time, shows over 15.3 million tickets have been “sold” for the film. However, the page makes no distinction between donated tickets and those purchased at the box office. Such a lack of transparency is not necessarily evidence of wrongdoing, but it does lead to questions. The Passion of the Christ set box-office records because church congregations bought tickets in bulk or organized field trips to see the movie after services. In contrast, Hollywood professionals such as The Black Phone and Doctor Strange co-writer C. Robert Cargill have referred to Angel’s strategy as a “culture war grift” in which the studio convinces churches to solicit contributions from its congregation earmarked for “pay it forward” tickets to Sound of Freedom. The church purchases the tickets, parishioners get a tax-deductible donation, and the movie’s box office take reaches even greater heights.

For William Mahaffey, co-owner of the independent movie theater Central Cinema in Knoxville, TN, Angel’s pay-it-forward plan has made accurately analyzing the film’s commercial reception nearly impossible. “I find it a little sketchy. How are they distributing these tickets and how are they deciding who deserves them?” Mahaffey said. “They are targeting the faith-based audience who most likely have ‘tithing’ and helping others ingrained into them from their church, and to me, it seems a little predatory to be knowingly taking advantage of that.” 

The film’s grosses become even more suspect in light of the unique program Angel has developed to provide the employees and supporters of nonprofits dedicated to combating child sex-trafficking an avenue to see the film for free. On its website, Angel encourages such organizations’ leaders to rent out auditoriums for Sound of Freedom group screenings. Upon submitting a receipt and proof of viewing, Angel will fully reimburse incurred costs as long as the auditorium is at 70% capacity. The studio could have easily donated a percentage of the film’s profits to aligned nonprofits, funds the organizations could have used at their discretion. Instead, Angel has essentially bought tickets for its own movie under the guise of charity to sustain Sound of Freedom’s status as a box-office juggernaut. 

Along with allegations concerning Sound of Freedom’s censorship, screenshots of allegedly sold-out screenings that are half-empty have emerged as a fixture on TikTok. Although outraged fans see collusion between Hollywood and exhibitors, such evidence further calls into question the details of Angel’s “pay it forward” program. Those interested in claiming free tickets can go to Angel’s website and type in their zip code. The page redirects to a list of showtimes provided by Atom Tickets, a popular third-party movie app. Users can then select a ticket and apply the offer to negate the price of admission–regardless of its total. Donated tickets apparently do not have to be redeemed to count toward the movie’s revenue. Curiously, Angel does not offer clear alternatives for those who have limited Internet access or lack computer literacy such as the seniors or lower-income families one would imagine a “pay it forward program” would most benefit. 

Angel Studios did not pioneer free ticket promotions. Hollywood media conglomerates have been offering voucher codes for years, largely in conjunction with the purchase of tie-in products like cereals featuring franchise characters or DVDs of previous installments and related titles. Such codes function as coupons that theaters accept as cash equivalents. According to Mahaffey, these discount arrangements are commonplace for exhibitors whether multiplex chains or locally owned neighborhood theaters like Central Cinema. 

However, those looking to pay it forward for Sound of Freedom must go to Angel’s website and buy each ticket for a flat rate of $15. Considering that the average U.S. ticket price has hovered around $10.53 in the post-pandemic era, Angel amassing a surplus of donation money seems a given, especially when factoring in matinee prices and discounted ticket Tuesdays that have become industry standard. Not to mention, Sound of Freedom’s marketing team has fashioned it as a film that plays to the heartland where tickets are much cheaper than in coastal metro areas.  “In my experience with getting movie vouchers like that from studio is just a voucher good for up to a certain amount,” Mahaffey said. “If that's how Angel is handling this, then if we were screening that film, they would be making $5 because we only charge $10 for tickets.”

Such may help explain why donors must view a disclaimer page that states the production company will try its best to dedicate all funds to the “pay it forward” program, but, “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.” Over the last three weeks, The Pamphleteer has repeatedly contacted Angel Studios to request data about the “pay it forward” program, including the number of unredeemed donated tickets, the impact of donated tickets on the film’s box-office total, and the company’s intended purpose for any unused funds. Its representatives cannot be reached for comment.

Since the film’s release, prominent Right-wing personalities like Steve Bannon and DC Draino have touted Sound of Freedom’s success as a culture war victory that crystallized when President Trump held a special screening at his New Jersey golf club before taking to social media and proclaiming implementing the death penalty for child sex traffickers as a cornerstone of his 2024 platform. Beyond the obvious issues with basing policy on a highly-fictionalized narrative, uncritically latching on to a film that bought its way into the zeitgeist under the guise of charity could prove catastrophic for a highly scrutinized political movement that positions itself as the purveyor of honesty and integrity. Conservatives have long criticized liberal authors of massaging their sales figures to attain bestseller status despite evidence its own personalities do the same. If a culture war exists (and I don’t believe it does), its MAGA wins cannot rely on such stunts without betraying the Right’s repressed fears about its inability to create quality artistic content.

More importantly, Sound of Freedom, at its core, is an ideologically confused and aesthetically deficient movie. In the years since production wrapped, outlets such as Vice have published thoroughly researched pieces that conclude Operation Underground Railroad has exaggerated its successes, put children at risk in its quest to make viral videos, and aligned itself with the (admittedly overhyped) QAnon movement. Such findings led Ballard to abdicate his leadership role within the organization. In addition, the film’s director, Alejandro Monteverde, has distanced himself from Ballard as well as Caviezel—star of The Passion of the Christ and a QAnon-adjacent personality who attended Trump’s screening with Ballard and remained a fixture on the conservative media circuit until the SAG-AFTRA strike sidelined him. At any point between now and the film’s acquisition, Angel could have made an effort to address the controversy surrounding the subject matter. It opted to double down on its version of reality.

In truth, Sound of Freedom would not need to rely on faux grassroots marketing mired in subterfuge if it were a better movie. Although it boasts the always reliable Caviezel and Oscar winner Mira Sorvino in a role she clearly took while still under the thumb of Harvey Weinstein’s blackballing, the film exhibits a total inability to understand its genre. It aims to convey the horrors of child trafficking, but caters to a PG-13 rating to avoid alienating its target demographic. With respect to Mr. Cavizel, it was the visceral brutality Harriet Beecher Stowe weaved into Uncle Tom’s Cabin that led to its integral role in the abolition movement. 

The result is a hybrid of the police procedural and the vigilante film hamfistedly constructed as a more palatable iteration of Death Wish and Dirty Harry with a socially conscious reframing of 80s Cannon action classics like Chuck Norris’s The Delta Force or Sylvester Stallone’s Cobra. What the film doesn’t realize is that its predecessors were a natural outgrowth of the western and hard-boiled detective movies with rugged individualist heroes whose violence is the only way to restore order to society but also mandates that there’s no place for them in civilization when their work is done. 

Like the conflicted cops of William Friedkin’s The French Connection and Cruising, Ballard’s quixotic mission and full immersion into society’s most heinous transgressions must take some toll on his relationship with his loved ones as well as his own moral code.  Yet, the film is utterly disinterested in such complexities. As the credits roll, Sound of Freedom seems the exact type of film that was given a second life by a group of Mormon brothers whose claim to fame before Angel’s launch was settling a $62 million copyright infringement suit over editing objectionable scenes out of Disney movies and selling copies of them without permission through their company VidAngel

Regardless, a certain stock of conservative has made a covenant to defend the film at all costs. After publishing a scathing review of the film, Rolling Stone writer Miles Klee became the target of death threats and allegations that he supported pedophilia. Nary a writer can enter the fray of the Sound of Freedom debate without an either/or rebuttal that not supporting the film is an endorsement of child sex slavery. Conservatives  routinely decry the adherents of Critical Race Theory’s blanket accusations of racism against anyone remotely opposed to its methodology. Now, many of the Right’s most popular leaders have unapologetically appropriated the same tactics. 

Despite billing itself as the next Great Awakening, Sound of Freedom has unwittingly become an albatross to which the Right seems completely oblivious. Conservatives crowed when the movie’s opening-day take bested the nearly week-old Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny by $63,000–box office numbers no doubt juiced by Sound of Freedom’s “pay it forward” plan and reported with a seamless spin only obvious to those who closely follow the industry. Like its financial performance, the film’s 67% Critics Rotten Tomatoes score is the result of inflated numbers, in this case, achieved through reviews by unknown writers or those with obvious political bias. That the score tumbles to 28% when filtering out non-established critics is as predictable as the film’s near-perfect audience score.  

When the Right endorses a film of Sound of Freedom’s quality and the opaque business practices that permit it to bully its way to the forefront of popular culture, it does nothing but exacerbate the stereotype that conservative-leaning art is inferior and out of touch–only able to triumph with the type of data manipulation that has forever cast a shadow over post-2020 America. Conservatives wage a culture war, but do not realize they have instead long been locked in a battle of ideas. If the response to Sound of Freedom is any indication, we’re outgunned, outmanned, outnumbered, and outplanned because we’ve expunged the Alexander Hamiltons from our ranks. Best we can do is Jim Caviezel.