It’s a classic cinematic setup: A scrappy underdog challenges an undisputed champ and scores a surprise victory. But this particular movie plotline pits Hollywood’s studio system against a small film distributor in Provo, Utah.
And Angel Studios’ success in its release of the faith-forward drama “Sound of Freedom” last week has sparked talk of a game-changing movement among company executives and industry observers.
The film — formerly the property of 20th Century Fox and Walt Disney Studios — is projected to garner $40 million in its first week of theatrical release. Its distribution relied on word-of-mouth promotion and a grassroots social media campaign in which moviegoers were asked to “pay it forward” by purchasing tickets that others could claim.
“When you have something like faith-based crowdfunding for a demographic that often feels ignored or underserved by the industry, Angel Studios is hitting the sweet spot,” said screenwriter/producer Bradford Winters, whose series projects include the FX spy thriller “The Americans” and the HBO prison drama “Oz.”
Angel Studios had used crowdfunding to boost production of “The Chosen,” the hit streaming series about the life of Jesus and the disciples.
But relying on its grassroots supporters to produce or promote faith-based films raises the stakes a bit, given that movies can have exponentially higher production and marketing costs.
Movie critic Christian Toto, host of the “Hollywood in Toto” podcast, said the gambit might be what’s needed in an increasingly fragmented entertainment marketplace.
“We need new marketing techniques and new practices with Hollywood, as the marketplace changes and as new technologies emerge,” said Mr. Toto, a former feature writer for The Washington Times. “This seems like a rather practical and effective approach so far.”
Still, Mr. Winters said the Angel Studios approach may work for a niche market but is unlikely to displace the established studio system.
“I don’t know if [it] would have the same success and impact” in other genres, he said. Angel Studios executives “know that they have a very eager, hungry audience willing to help the cause, and who probably feel very legitimized, validated, even empowered, knowing that whatever small or big contribution, you know, they’ve made to these projects helps get them made.”
That knowledge of its audience helped drive Angel Studios’ success in its release of “Sound of Freedom.” It opened last Friday and finished the weekend box office behind the new horror feature “Insidious: The Red Door” and the second-week run of “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny.”
What’s telling is that it was available on just 2,850 screens in North America, some 300 fewer than “Insidious” and 1,750 fewer than “Indiana Jones.”
Perhaps even more telling is the film’s subject matter: child sex trafficking. Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in the 2004 blockbuster epic “The Passion of the Christ,” portrays real-life former Homeland Security agent Tim Ballard, who quit his agency’s task force on crimes against children to start Operation Underground Railroad to rescue children directly. Not the typical escapist summertime fare.
Adam Holz, who directs the Plugged In media-and-culture website for Focus on the Family, notes that Disney executives scuttled “Sound of Freedom” in 2019, one year after the mega studio acquired 20th Century Fox, which had already produced the film.
“Why did Disney not want to touch this? Because, obviously, they’re the ones who made that choice,” Mr. Holz said.
A spokesperson for Walt Disney Studios did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
For Jared Geesey, vice president of global distribution for Angel Studios, the investors — those grassroots moviegoers — hold all the power in greenlighting movies and television shows, not Hollywood executives.
“Our fundamental difference is that we are letting the fan decide the content that is created and comes to the market,” Mr. Geesey said.
“There’s no executive of Angel that can greenlight a project,” he said. “We think that the Hollywood gatekeeper model of choosing what content people ought to watch is broken and doesn’t create the kinds of stories that align with people’s values, that they want to see.”
What’s more, thanks to “Angel Guild” members, who either send a monthly amount or choose to back a specific project, two new projects are in the pipeline — “The Shift,” a science-fiction drama, and “Cabrini,” the story of St. Frances Cabrini, a Catholic nun who ministered to Italian immigrants in New York City, Mr. Geesey said.
Mr. Toto says crowdfunding could expand into other categories before consumers tire of the approach.
“It seems like there are more and more success stories,” he said. “I’m sure there are lots of failures, too. But you’re seeing this in the comic book industry. You’re seeing this when comedians either use Patreon or other methods to support their craft.”
And Mr. Holz says Angel Studios’ success may be rattling some Hollywood cages, adding that studios such as Lionsgate, which now holds distribution rights to “The Chosen” streaming series, and Sony’s Affirm Films unit believe “there is a real market to be served” in the faith-aligned community.
“The studio system as it has existed, is trying to figure out what the way forward is,” Mr. Holz said. “There’s a sense of panic that [the studios] have seen failure after failure after failure recently, and you can chalk some of that up to the woke pushback, but I don’t think that’s the only thing going on here. You’ve got to be able to tell a good story, and a story that engages people.”
At the same time, he warns against thinking this is a “silver bullet” for success in a fragmented media market where streaming services, YouTube and TikTok are competing for viewers.
“In some ways, it’s a pretty pure distillation of the market,” he said. “I don’t think Angel Studios has a lock on it, but I do think that they have figured out — at least at this point — a way to make it work for them. And they will probably continue to do it as long as it is successful, but there’s no reason that other companies couldn’t do it, too.”