The faith-based child-trafficking thriller Sound of Freedom has become one of the biggest, most unexpected box-office hits of the year. Released by upstart distributor, Angel Studios, the film has raked in $130 million (and counting) in the U.S., keeping pace with major studio releases like the Walt Disney-backed Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and Paramount's latest Mission: Impossible adventure. And now, Sound of Freedom is going global.
Angel Studios has announced plans to release the film in 21 international markets, including Australia and South Africa.
The film's underdog success story isn't the only reason it's making headlines, though.
Since Sound of Freedom's July 4 release, there have been outlandish QAnon-centric conspiracy theories spread and refuted, as well as a screening hosted by former President Donald Trump and a link made between the film and years-old congressional testimony by Ashton Kutcher.
Here's everything you need to know about 2023's sleeper hit.
What is Sound of Freedom about?
Originally filmed in 2018, Sound of Freedom is inspired by the life of Tim Ballard — a former special agent with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In 2013, he founded Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), an organization that works to prevent the sex-trafficking of children. "I was working on a couple of cases that fell outside the jurisdiction of the United States, and I had to quit my job to finish the cases," Ballard said during a recent appearance on Fox News. "One of the first operations was this enormous hit in Colombia. It made national news, and then the producers came to us and said, 'This sounds like a movie.'"
In the film, Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ) plays Ballard at the tail end of his DHS career, worn down by a series of soul-draining trafficking cases involving migrant children. When he spearheads an operation at the Mexican border, he's able to free one child, but not the boy's sister, Rocio (Cristal Aparicio), who is still in jeopardy in Colombia. With the approval of his wife, Katherine (Mira Sorvino), Ballard travels to South America as an independent agent and goes deep undercover in order find the missing girl.
That journey takes him into the Colombian jungle, where he discovers that Rocio is being held prisoner by a rebel leader named Scorpio. Along with another anti-trafficking American expat, Vampiro (played by character actor Bill Camp), Ballard must infiltrate the compound and figure out a way to spirit her to safety.
That may sound like it sets the stage for some Rambo-style firepower, but Variety film critic Owen Gleiberman notes in his review that Ballard isn't the next Sylvester Stallone or Chuck Norris, writing: "It’s not a glorified Rambo movie or a Netflix thriller pretending to be serious. When the deliverance we’ve been seeking arrives, it feels earned."
How was it made?
Sound of Freedom is produced by Mexican actor and filmmaker Eduardo Verástegui, who has openly discussed how his Catholic faith played a role in his desire to see the film made. "I promise to God, I want to dedicate my entire life to save children," Verástegui recently told the Christian Post. (In 2020, Trump named Verástegui an adviser to the White House Hispanic Prosperity Initiative, and the producer has reportedly been weighing a run for higher office in Mexico.)
Rod Barr and Alejandro Monteverde co-wrote the script, with Monteverde taking on directing duties. As for casting, Ballard told the Deseret News in 2018 that Caviezel was his first choice to play his onscreen alter ego, even though they didn't closely resemble each other. "There was something special about Jim," Ballard said, specifically citing the actor's star turn in the 2002 version of The Count of Monte Cristo. "It was important to us that whoever played this role had to be someone that willfully did it with God and knew that that light has to come out because we don’t want this to just be a movie; we want this to be a movement."
For his part, Caviezel called the project "the second most important film I have ever done since The Passion of the Christ." Sorvino, who has spoken out against human trafficking in her role as a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador, expressed a similar calling when talking to the Washington Examiner about the film recently. "We just can't accept it anymore," she said. "We can't let sweet children of the world be exploited in this way and hurt in this way."
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Verástegui said that Sound of Freedom was acquired by 20th Century Fox — which had successfully released several faith-based movies, including 2014's Son of God — for a release in Latin America. But after the studio was acquired by the Walt Disney Company in 2019, the producer bought the movie back and explored an independent release. "This is a movie about child trafficking," he said. "It’s not a Disney movie."
After five years in limbo, Sound of Freedom was acquired by Angel Studios in March. Founded in 2021, the Utah-based media company started as a streaming service before moving into theatrical distribution with the film His Only Son.
Jordan Harmon, who runs Angel with his three brothers, told the Wall Street Journal that opening on July 4 was a way of indicating to audiences that they plan to tell "faith-friendly" stories that also "amplify light" to a broader audience. (Prior to founding Angel, the brothers, who are Mormon, ran VidAngel, a streaming service that ran versions of Hollywood movies that removed nudity and other "offensive" content. The company was shut down after being sued for copyright infringement by Disney, among other studios.)
Why is Sound of Freedom controversial?
Sound of Freedom has received some mixed reviews, particularly in regards to its historical accuracy. Ballard's organization has been criticized for embellishing its role in anti-trafficking cases, with some former OUR partners speaking out about their experience. (Ballard is no longer with OUR, the organization announced this week.)
Meanwhile, Caviezel made headlines in 2021, when he appeared to espouse QAnon conspiracy theories around human trafficking during a right-wing gathering.
Considering one of the most prominent QAnon theories centers around the idea that Satan-worshipping global elites run the world and are involved in a global child trafficking ring, several reviewers have tied the movie directly to the far-right political movement. "At last, QAnon's camp appeal gets the cinematic exploration it demands," writes Jezebel's Rich Juzwiak, while Rolling Stone calls it a "QAnon-tinged" thriller.
The kerfuffle over the film's alleged QAnon ties came to a head when a conspiracy theory that the mega-movie chain AMC Theatres was intentionally sabotaging Sound of Freedom screenings (by evacuating screenings, making the sound inaudible or shutting off air conditioning). Both the exhibitor's president and the movie's distributor publicly shut down the claims.
"Sadly, conspiracy theorists are so prevalent in America," CEO Adam Aron tweeted on July 12. "So much garbage information is spread. More than ONE MILLION people have watched Sound of Freedom at AMC Theatres. More than at any other theatre chain on the planet. Yet people falsely claim otherwise. It is so bizarre."
Brandon Purdie, head of theatrical distribution for Angel Studios, told Entertainment Weekly, "We want to make it clear these rumors are not accurate," adding that AMC has been "an outstanding partner," and the chain was actually adding the film to more screens.
Trump hosted a private screening of the film at his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club on July 19. Caviezel, Ballard and Verástegui were in attendance, the Guardian reported.
"Liberal media outlets like the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Hollywood Reporter have refused to review the film," Trump's July 13 announcement for the screening read. "While publications like Rolling Stone, Washington Post, CNN and the Guardian have trashed the film and mocked the millions of moviegoers who purchased tickets to screenings."
Echoing similar sentiment, a Twitter user who goes by KanekoaTheGreat called out critics of the film with a viral post resurfacing actor Ashton Kutcher's 2017 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which he called attention to international child sex-trafficking networks.
"Unfortunately, instead of embracing the film's message, the corporate media has launched a smear campaign against it," they wrote on Twitter. "Why would the corporate media invest so much effort in vilifying a movie that tackles the critical issue of child sex-trafficking?"
Sound of Freedom has also taken its knocks for a new report that its lead investor, executive producer Andrew McCubbins, pleaded guilty in 2020 to an $89 million Medicare fraud scheme.
How did Sound of Freedom outearn Indiana Jones?
Angel announced the film's July 4 release date in May, when the promotional campaign for Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny was kicking into gear with its launch at the Cannes Film Festival. The James Mangold-directed film opened in 4,600 U.S. theaters on June 30, while Sound of Freedom was booked into 2,600 theaters four days later. Dial of Destiny had a $24 million opening day, but those numbers fell to the $12 million range by July 3. That same day, Variety reported that Sound of Freedom had already generated $10 million in presales, the first indication that an Independence Day upset might be brewing.
By the end of July 4, both studios estimated that their respective films had earned $11.5 million, although Disney revised Indiana Jones's grosses to $11.7 million, seemingly giving it the win.
But Angel subsequently announced an additional $2.6 million gross for Sound of Freedom, bringing its total up to $14.2 million. Those additional dollars reportedly came from the company's "Pay It Forward" crowdfunding platform, which allows audiences to donate extra money that reportedly goes toward funding free tickets for other moviegoers. Angel has said that more than 10 million tickets have been sold through the platform.
But the "Pay It Forward" program has been another source of controversy as some theatergoers have claimed on social media that supposedly sold out screenings of Sound of Freedom are actually playing to empty theaters. That has inspired speculation that the film's box office returns may be artificially inflated by crowdfunded ticket sales for screenings that few moviegoers actually attend. Both Angel and Aron have pushed back against those claims.
LibsofTikTok actually posted this for real after i have been trying to tell people for weeks that there was a multi-million dollar astro turfed campaign to purchase tickets to Sound of Freedom to artificially inflate the box office numbers pic.twitter.com/pTnpkYKqFG
— HowIsEmpireBabbyFormed (@FluorescentGrey) July 14, 2023
Regardless of audience attendance figures, Sound of Freedom handily qualifies as a summer hit in terms of box office returns. The film has now grossed over $130 million, the first independent release since the pandemic to reach that box office milestone. It's also the 14th highest-grossing film of the year, surpassing The Flash and Scream VI.
What's the future for Sound of Freedom?
Angel has aggressively advertised Sound of Freedom directly to faith-based and conservative audiences, counting on those appeals and word of mouth to enhance the movie's box-office prospects over the next month. (Caviezel's Passion of the Christ director, Mel Gibson, gave it a thumbs-up via video.)
And now the studio is preparing to reach a whole new audience by taking the film abroad. "Since Sound of Freedom launched in the U.S., demand has been building around the world in dozens of regions and languages," Jared Geesey, Angel's senior vice president of global distribution, recently told The Hollywood Reporter. "Child trafficking is a global issue, and we hope to build on the incredible momentum here in the states and share the film’s powerful message worldwide."
Sound of Freedom will be released in 21 international markets over the next few months, starting with South Africa on Aug. 18, and then Australia and New Zealand on Aug. 24. Multiple Latin American countries will premiere the film on Aug. 31, followed by the U.K. and Ireland on Sept. 1 and Spain on Oct. 11.
Speaking to the Washington Examiner in the wake of claiming victory over Indiana Jones at the July 4 box office, Angel Studios CEO Neal Harmon called the movie a "grassroots movement" and shouted out its A+ CinemaScore. "We're the top-rated movie in America, and we’re going to see word-of-mouth spread even further going into the weekend," he said. "The world needs to see Sound of Freedom, and we know that our biggest competitive advantage — our incredible fans and investors — are going to make sure that happens."
This story was originally published on July 6, 2023, and has been updated.
Sound of Freedom is playing in theaters now.