Angel Studios Sets New Standard with Sound of Freedom

Excellent filmmaking raises awareness about human trafficking without sacrificing art or story

Angel Studios may be setting a new standard for social impact filmmaking. I knew the studio’s new movie, Sound of Freedom, was a winner when I first tried to buy tickets online: The first three showings on July 4th, release day, were nearly sold out. Indeed, its marketing campaign may be one of the best examples of social media film marketing filmmaking in recent history. (I found out about the movie through my Facebook feed.)

But, as I found out, Sound of Freedom’s success is more than marketing hype. This dramatic movie about human trafficking, and child sex trafficking in particular, is the complete package: high production values, deft direction, superb acting, emotional punch, and a tight, relevant story.

Sound of Freedom Beats Indiana Jones at the Box Office

Sound of Freedom opened in wide release in 2,634 theaters on July 4th. The movie earned $14 million in its first two days, making it number one at the box office for the day and topping Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (also in its first week of release).

What’s more impressive? Sound of Freedom deals directly with a challenging and emotionally charged topic: child sex trafficking. While Indiana Jones relies on a feel-good nostalgic adventure capping a five-film franchise dating to the 1980s, Sound of Freedom takes audiences into the dark recesses of true contemporary evil. 

Fortunately, audiences will leave the theater hopeful, if somewhat daunted by the scale of what is necessary to stamp out this despicable practice. However, thanks to Angels Studios’ intentional and well-designed social impact campaign, audiences are empowered to act. 

The Movies’ Success is More than Marketing Hype

The studio includes a powerful message from its star, Jim Caviezel (Passion of the Christthe Count of Monte CristoPerson of Interest), asking audiences to help raise awareness about human trafficking by paying for additional tickets for those who may not be able to afford to see the movie in a theater. As of this writing, the studio reportedly sold 1.4 million tickets toward a goal of 2 million (representing the 2 million children trafficked each year).

But aggressive social media marketing, while important, is not sufficient to make the movie a success. Even star power can not reliably lift a movie to commercial success. 

Despite a stellar performance by Jody Foster, for example, the political thriller The Mauritanian (2021), a movie about the unjust incarceration of Mohamedou Ould Slahi in Guantanamo, managed just $7.5 million at the box office during its entire run. Dark Waters (2019), a movie about environmental pollution by DuPont chemical company starring Mark Ruffalo and Anne Hathaway, among others, earned just $11 million domestically after a two-month run at the box office. 

Sound of Freedom Is an Artistically Excellent Film

The ace in the hole for Sound of Freedom is an artistically excellent narrative film. The message is important, even critical, but the story is told well and never wavers from the emotional journeys of its main characters. 

Despite the heavy topic and what will be an emotional gut punch to many, the movie never overwhelms the audience with terror and evil. In part, this is because the hero of the movie, Tim Ballard (Caviezel), is on a hero’s journey to save children. While evil people are central to the plot, the audience is on the ride because the main character is engaged in a noble fight for justice. 

Equally important are the individuals who travel with him, whether his wife (Mira SorvinoMighty Aphrodite, the miniseries Human Trafficking), a self-made billionaire, or a former drug cartel operative (Bill CampMolly’s GameDark WatersJoker). Most importantly, the story never loses its focus on the true victims: the children tricked and sold into slavery. 

Ballard gives up his job in the child trafficking division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to pursue a global quest of rescuing children, not just arresting pedophiles. When he finds his impact with the federal bureaucracy muted by rules and a failure to help the true victims – the children – he changes course. The movie’s story focuses on his personal desire to find two children. Still, he saves many more in the process and brings reluctant supporters on board.

Christian Themes Don’t Overwhelm Story

The movie also shows the power of personal transformation. When a Colombian drug cartel operative (Camp) is faced with the reprehensible facts of his own behavior, he turns to save the children. As he says, when in the depths of his own moral depravity, when you hear God, you listen.

Angel Studios is best known for its Christian-themed work. To the movie’s credit, the Christian message is universal and reserved for critical moments, heightening its impact on the story. As the producer of the hit series The Chosen, the studio leveraged its fan base to crowdsource funding from 7,000 investors and donors to produce Sound of Freedom.

The benefits of this bottom-up, scrappy approach to what is now termed “social impact filmmaking” are not just in the production values, which compete with the best studio films, but also in the talent. All the actors turn in excellent performances, not just Caviezel. 

Excellent Casting and Directing Lifts the Movie to Excellence

One indicator of a film’s quality is whether the director allows actors to use the full range of their talents. A good actor communicates with audiences visually through actions, emotions, and eyes, not just dialogue.

Excellent casting, particularly for the children, has given the Mexican director Alejandro Monteverde a full range of visual storytelling tools, and he takes advantage of them. A look, not words, can answer a rhetorical question used to set up a major decision point. The vacant stare of a child who has experienced repeated trauma tells more than words, or even audible crying, could hope to. 

Angel Studios Has a Sleeper Hit

Social impact filmmaking is a relatively new niche in the movie industry. While movies have long addressed social values and provided social commentary, developing movies with an explicit focus on a social problem or issue is financially fraught. (Recent narrative film examples in the liberty movement include Little Pink House and Miss Virginia.)

Major studios and distributors are rarely willing to take a risk on the movie. Indeed, Disney acquired the distribution rights to Sound of Freedom when it purchased 20th Century Fox and promptly shelved the project. Netflix apparently also turned down the movie.

Angel Studios seems to have a sleeper hit on its hands. Almost every element of this movie struck a chord and rang true as a movie critic and someone knowledgeable about the trauma of sexual assault and the sad state of human trafficking. 

The fact the message is wrapped up in a very well-produced, high-quality movie makes it a winner in all dimensions. 

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D., is director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center, a market-oriented think tank in the College of Social Sciences and Public Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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