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How Sound of Freedom Became the Surprise Box Office Hit of the Summer

9 minute read

Amid the hype over the cinematic double whammy of "Barbenheimer", another movie has crept up in the box office rankings this summer: Sound of Freedom.

Directed and co-written by Alejandro Monteverde, Sound of Freedom is a low-budget action thriller about a U.S. federal agent who goes rogue on a mission to rescue children in Latin America from sex trafficking. Since its release on July 4, it's raked in over $180 million at the domestic box office, outperforming big-budget features like Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One and Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, and making it the highest-grossing indie film since 2019’s Parasite.

Billed as a story about the real-life Tim Ballard, a former special agent for the Department of Homeland Security and founder of the anti-trafficking group Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.), Sound of Freedom has become mired in controversy over criticisms that it features misleading depictions of child exploitation and plays into right-wing conspiracy theories associated with the QAnon movement. These associations have been perpetuated by both Ballard and his on-screen counterpart, Jim Caviezel, who has been a prominent supporter of QAnon for years.

The film's distributor, Angel Studios, has denied that Sound of Freedom is political or connected to QAnon. “Anybody who watches this film knows that this film is not about conspiracy theories," Angel CEO Neal Harmon said in an interview. "It’s not about politics.”

While Sound of Freedom doesn't take a direct political stance or invoke QAnon, the fervent support for the film from the right has resulted it in being labeled "MAGA-friendly" and embraced by both mainstream conservatives and far-right conspiracy theorists. Former President Donald Trump recently hosted a screening of the film at his golf club in New Jersey, while Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Tim Scott have publicly praised it.

Here's how Sound of Freedom became the controversial hit of the summer.

Sound of Freedom's origin story

In August, Monteverde—best known for writing and directing the 2006 drama Bella, which won the top prize at the Toronto International Film Festival—began addressing the controversies around Sound of Freedom, calling the association with QAnon "ridiculous" in an interview with Variety.

“The origin [of the film] has been avoided, purposely or accidentally, in the media,” he said. “The origin will answer a lot of these misconceptions on the film.”

According to the filmmaker, he began the project that became Sound of Freedom in 2015, two years before QAnon emerged. After watching a network news segment on child sex trafficking, Monteverde said he was inspired to start writing a screenplay on the subject. The resulting script, originally titled Mogul, was "purely fictionalized," he said.

However, after the film’s producer, Eduardo Verástegui, met Ballard, the project came to center on the time that Ballard spent deployed as an undercover operative for the U.S. Child Sex Tourism Jump Team while assigned to Homeland Security's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force for over a decade prior to 2013.

"All I wanted was to present a question about the problem: human trafficking, child trafficking, child sexual exploitation," Monteverde said. "How bad the problem is. We shot in 2018. In 2019, it was a completely finished film."

Verástegui—who plays a role in Sound of Freedom in addition to producing—was also responsible for rallying the investors who supplied $14.5 million in funding for the film. At Sound of Freedom's premiere, he told the Washington Examiner that after he heard Ballard's story, he was compelled to turn it into a film. “I am a filmmaker," he said. "I ask myself, 'What can I do?' A movie. I have a weapon of mass instruction, and inspiration.”

Verástegui later told the New York Post that while he doesn't understand the criticism surrounding the movie, he sees it as a blessing in disguise. “They are doing us a favor, the more they attack the movie, people show up," he said. "Sound of Freedom is saving lives."

The film was initially picked up for distribution by Fox Latin America, but ended up in production limbo for nearly five years after Fox was acquired by Disney in 2019. Disney allegedly declined to release the film, but ultimately allowed the filmmakers to buy back the rights.

After the movie was further delayed by the pandemic and passed on for distribution by other major studios and streamers, the Sound of Freedom team agreed to a deal with Angel Studios in March 2023.

What is Angel Studios and how did it get involved?

Founded in 2021 by Mormon brothers Neal and Jeff Harmon, Angel Studios is a Utah-based media company that specializes in crowdfunding original films and TV series that "amplify light." In recent years, the studio has found success with The Chosen, a multi-season series about the life of Jesus touted by Angel as the "biggest crowdfunded project in TV history," and faith-based films like His Only Son and Testament.

To distribute and market Sound of Freedom, Angel raised $5 million from nearly 7,000 crowd investors in exchange for shares of the film's revenue. On August 16, the studio announced in a press release that it repaid its backers their original investment plus a 20% profit.

Monteverde told Variety that the Harmons took a unique approach to promoting Sound of Freedom.

"They just had a completely different way of marketing a film that I’ve never seen," he said. "I became a pain. And they told me, 'Alejandro, let us do our work. You have to trust us.' And we made a deal."

To drum up ticket sales, Angel added a clip at the end of the film's trailer where Caviezel directly addresses the audience and encourages viewers to preorder their tickets to "send the message that God's children are no longer for sale." Caviezel also comes on screen at the end of the movie itself to urge audiences to participate in Angel's "Pay It Forward" program by buying an extra ticket for someone "who might not otherwise see [the film]."

This has led to questions about how many of those extra tickets are actually being used and whether they're over-inflating the movie's sales figures. Jared Geesey, Angel's senior vice president of global distribution, told the Hollywood Reporter that the "vast majority" of tickets are being bought directly by moviegoers and that only redeemed donated tickets are counted when Angel reports its box office grosses. Monteverde estimated that the Pay It Forward program accounts for less than 10% of Sound of Freedom's overall box-office earnings.

“We do not break out Pay It Forward tickets versus regular tickets because they’re the same thing," Geesey said. "A ticket is a ticket, whether you paid for it or someone else paid for it.”

According to the studio's website, money from unredeemed tickets may be used to pay for streaming Sound of Freedom in the Angel Studios app or "to help the filmmaker create additional content."

Angel did not respond to TIME's request for comment.

Controversy takes over

Much of the controversy surrounding Sound of Freedom stems from Caviezel and Ballard, who have openly supported QAnon.

Caviezel, best known for playing Jesus in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, has given speeches and interviews in which he promotes the baseless conspiracy theory that a shadowy international cabal of top Democratic politicians and famous liberal elites are kidnapping children, forcing them into sex trafficking, and harvesting the chemical adrenochrome from their blood to consume as an elixir of youth. The conspiracy theory, which has anti-Semitic roots, has been debunked numerous times by media outlets and scientific communities.

Meanwhile, Ballard is caught up in his own web of controversy. In addition to voicing support for false QAnon-associated claims, Ballard's work as an anti-trafficking activist has also come under scrutiny.

Days after Sound of Freedom was released, Vice published a lengthy investigation into how Ballard has a history of self-mythologizing and embellishing his exploits while O.U.R. has "spent years making big, often unprovable claims about its paramilitary missions and role in rescuing trafficked kids."

"A number of O.U.R.’s claims about its work are dramatically overstated or without clear documentary evidence," the piece read. "People who have volunteered for O.U.R. have raised concerns that it could actually have been creating demand for trafficking victims, by going to foreign countries on undercover 'missions' that, at times, have seemed to consist of walking around bars and sex clubs asking for underage girls."

Later that month, Vice reported that Ballard had quietly parted ways with O.U.R. ahead of Sound of Freedom's debut. The circumstances surrounding Ballard's departure were unclear.

"Tim Ballard has stepped away from Operation Underground Railroad prior to the launch of the film, Sound of Freedom," O.U.R. said in a statement provided to TIME. "The operations, tactics, and methodologies depicted in Sound of Freedom occurred in the early days of our organization, nearly nine years ago, and since then have evolved dramatically. The film represents just a small fraction of the operations, training, and aftercare support that we provide in the U.S. and around the world today."

Sound of Freedom itself has also been criticized by anti-trafficking experts for providing a "false perception" of child trafficking and promoting "rescue" tactics that may actually put real victims in danger.

What's next for Sound of Freedom

Following its success in the U.S., Sound of Freedom is set to roll out overseas in 21 different markets, including the U.K., Australia, Spain, South Africa and a number of countries in Latin America.

According to Geesey, Angel Studios believes the film will ultimately cross the $200 million mark in North America as it begins what is expected to be a robust international launch. Sound of Freedom is currently the 10th highest-grossing of the year in the U.S., outranking blockbusters like Dial of Destiny, Dead Reckoning Part One, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, Creed III, and Fast X.

“Since Sound of Freedom launched in the U.S., demand has been building around the world in dozens of regions and languages,” he 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.”

Angel has also reportedly been shopping the first exclusive streaming rights for Sound of Freedom at both subscription services and ad-supported streamers.

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Write to Megan McCluskey at megan.mccluskey@time.com