In the Utah marketing scene where Daniel, Jordan, Jeffrey and Neal Harmon are sometimes spoken of as geniuses, it seemed clear by opening day for “Sound of Freedom” that the brothers had shown Hollywood how it’s done.
The Harmons’ latest release, a low-budget action flick about an American who hunts pedophiles through the Colombian jungle, nearly topped the new Indiana Jones on July 4 and has since cleared $165 million at the box office. Not to mention screenings at the U.S. Capitol and Donald Trump’s golf club, and hundreds of millions of TikTok users who have watched videos of one another opining about the global sex-trafficking crisis in living rooms and movie theater parking lots.
Everything about “Sound of Freedom” that certain critics hated — its dramatic oversimplification of child trafficking, its moralizing overtones — was spun into gold by the well-oiled, whole-wheat marketing machinery at Angel Studios, a sort of anti-Hollywood the brothers founded in the foothills of Mormon country.
“Preorder your tickets today, and you can send the message that God’s children are no longer for sale,” the film’s star Jim Caviezel says at the end of the trailer, looking straight into the camera as he implores viewers to evangelize the film and, if they can afford it, give money to the studio.
But the Harmons’ hype machine developed a wobble.
Clips started to spread of Caviezel promoting “Sound of Freedom” at a gathering of QAnoners and other conspiracy theorists, where he claimed traffickers were torturing children to harvest chemicals they secreted. Some of the fan videos on TikTok turned paranoid, accusing movie theaters of sabotaging screenings to keep people from watching the film. One of thousands of crowdfunders whose name appeared in the film’s credits was arrested in connection to a child kidnapping.
The Harmons are suddenly in the center of their own spotlight, as Angel Studios puts out statement after statement distancing itself from the rhetoric and behavior of some fans. But this isn’t the first time the brothers have hit head winds in their stated mission to build a faith-based entertainment empire. In addition to what might be the most popular TV show about Jesus in history, their résumé includes a bankruptcy, a lawsuit by Hollywood studios and a movie deal that turned sour.
“They pride themselves on being a light-bearing company,” said Ashley Bratcher, a filmmaker who said she severed ties with Angel Studios after she became concerned about its fundraising practices. “I think there’s a lot of stuff done in the dark with this studio.”
While the brothers have an uncanny knack for making projects go viral, they have little social media presence themselves and tend to let word of mouth do the talking. A spokesman for Angel Studios declined to make them available for interviews for this story.
Jeffrey Harmon did speak to The Washington Post for a profile in 2016, where he said he and his siblings — there are nine in total, with various combinations of brothers holding titles in the family’s constellation of companies — grew up poor in Idaho farm country, selling potatoes door-to-door.
By the 2010s, they were running Harmon Brothers LLC in Provo, Utah, a small city that houses Brigham Young University, the flagship school of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to which the family belongs.
The brothers quickly made a name for themselves in local circles. “It’d be impossible to not know the Harmon brothers. I genuinely think they’re geniuses,” said Clint Betts, founder of Silicon Slopes, a nonprofit that promotes tech companies in the area. “They’re really good at telling stories and getting people’s attention.”
Their company initially made ads for intimate products such as tongue scrapers and bathroom deodorizers, staking out a niche between wholesomeness and edginess. Their biggest hit from that period was a viral video for a supposedly colon-enhancing toilet add-on called the Squatty Potty, in which a unicorn pooped rainbow-colored ice cream onto a conveyor belt. It was viewed more than 100 million times across YouTube and Facebook.
“There’s nothing in my beliefs that says, ‘You can’t talk about poo,’” Jeffrey told The Post at the time.
The Harmons were already expanding their vision from YouTube to Hollywood by then. They launched an online service called VidAngel in 2014, which Daniel Harmon described to the Deseret News as a way to filter “bosoms, blood and bad words” out of your favorite movies and shows.
“So that I don’t have to cover up my kids’ eyes, or cover my teenager’s eyes or quickly skip a scene,” Jeffrey Harmon added. “It just does that for me.”
Behind the scenes, VidAngel would circumvent the read-only encryptions on DVDs without permission so it could remove unwholesome bits, according to a copyright infringement lawsuit filed by Disney, 20th Century Studios, Lucasfilm and Warner Bros. in 2016. The company would technically sell the DVD to a customer for $20 before editing it and streaming the censored version to them, then offer to buy it back for $19 the next day — effectively creating a $1-per-day rental company.
The complicated system allowed the Harmons to defend their business under the Family Movie Act of 2005, which allows customers to edit films they buy. But under pressure from the lawsuit, VidAngel reorganized in a bankruptcy and finally settled with the studios in 2020, agreeing not to copy, stream or distribute their videos without permission.
VidAngel still exists, with options to censor approved titles from Netflix, Apple TV and others streamers, though no Disney or Warner Bros. content.
And the Harmons have continued to expand their empire, rebranding their flagship company as Angel Studios in 2021.
The brothers don’t just sanitize Hollywood productions anymore. They compete with them.
The Angel Studios app feels like a Christianized version of Netflix, with angelic light suffusing thumbnails for free-to-watch titles such as “His Only Son” and “Testament.” Buttons all over the screen prompt users to spread the good word by commenting, sharing or giving money to the company, whose catchline is, “Be a Part of Stories that Amplify Light.”
Neal Harmon, Angel’s chief executive, might pop up in a window to make sure children aren’t giving themselves nightmares by clicking the “Sound of Freedom” trailer. “The reason we made Angel Studios is for all of you. You are the future of our world,” he says. “We want the very best for you, so thank you for stopping this show and talking to your parents first.”
Or you might see faith-focused director Dallas Jenkins in a “Binge Jesus” shirt, plugging his streaming series about the life of Jesus, which the Harmons’ company announced in 2019 as the “#1 crowdfunded media project in history.”
“The Chosen” has been watched 555,955,158 times as of Saturday morning, according to a constantly increasing ticker on the app. A button invites you to “pay it forward to help create future seasons.”
Fifteen dollars will “bring the show to 10 people/month,” according to the app. For $100,000, you can bring it to 200,000 people and get your name in the credits. But Angel doesn’t report how much money it collects through its Pay it Forward programs. Nor is it entirely clear what it does with the money fans give it.
Most of the $40 million budget for the upcoming Season 4 of the “The Chosen” was covered by donations to a nonprofit that backs the show and that has no affiliation with the Harmons, according to the show’s website. Angel Studios contributed $8.5 million through its Pay it Forward program, the page states, and keeps about half of the money it collects through its app for other purposes. Last month, the CW started airing the show on TV for the first time.
Angel now advertises Pay it Forward programs for 15 shows and movies under its umbrella. Small print on the payment screen for some of them notes that the company will own the funds “and may use them at its sole discretion to further the Angel Studios’ mission of amplifying light through impactful stories.”
The crowdfunding model used to launch “The Chosen” is similar to one described by Bratcher, an actress who gained a conservative following after starring in the antiabortion film “Unplanned.” She said Angel Studios approached her in late 2021 with a deal that looked good, at first.
Angel wanted to help her develop and distribute a feature movie based on her short film “Pharma,” which follows a doctor’s fights to keep a drug designed to treat pregnancy nausea off the market in the 1960s because of its link to birth defects. The company gave her seed money to build hype for a crowdfunding campaign that would tap Angel’s passionate flock of supporters. (Bratcher declined to say how much, citing a confidentiality agreement.)
But Bratcher said working with Angel Studios “just kept getting more and more difficult.”
After several delays launching the crowdfunding site, she said, the money started rolling in. But she said she balked when Angel Studios pressed her to spend huge amounts of it — between $200,000 and $300,000 — on social media advertisements to drum up even more donations.
“People would maybe be less inclined to invest in a project where they knew that like 30 percent of their investment was going right back into social media,” Bratcher said. “For me, it didn’t feel good.”
In June, Bratcher said, concerns over budgets and creative control led her and her business partner to terminate their contract with Angel Studios. She still has $400,000 she raised for the film on Angel’s platforms and plans to use it to produce the movie on her own.
Angel Studios did not reply to questions from The Post but told the Hollywood Reporter this month that it released Bratcher from her contract after the crowdfunding fell far short of a $5 million goal, among other issues.
One failed project might be no more than a blip on Angel’s résumé. The company announced in January 2022 that it had earned more than $100 million “just one year after Disney and Warner Bros. tried to shut the studio down.” A venture capital firm had invested another $47 million in what Neal Harmon described as “our long-term mission of remaking the entertainment industry.”
That goal appears closer at hand after “Sound of Freedom” became the sleeper hit of the summer. But the dark, PG-13 action film is very different from the family-friendly projects that fill most of Angel’s catalogue.
The film is loosely based on the self-described rescue operations of Tim Ballard, a former Department of Homeland Security agent who sets up sting operations to catch child sex traffickers in other countries, and has occasionally flirted with the viral QAnon movement that posits that children are being abducted, sold and shipped across the globe by a conspiracy of rich and powerful elites.
There are no QAnon theories in “Sound of Freedom.” Caviezel, known for playing Jesus in Mel Gibson’s 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ,” portrays Ballard more like Rambo, stealing through criminal hideouts to rescue a Honduran girl who was abducted to Colombia by criminal thugs.
A spokesman for Polaris, an anti-trafficking group that Angel Studios repeatedly cites on its “How to Help Combat Child Trafficking” page, said the movie’s plot bears little resemblance to reality, where victims are often manipulated by abusers they know in ways that can’t be solved with heroic rescues or flashy stings.
Such movies “mislead people to believe that if they see something, they will act and they will intervene and be the heroes of the situation,” said Polaris spokesman Rafael Flores Avalos. “That narrative doesn’t do much for the field. There are people that are actually trying to listen to survivors and see what they think is the solution for this problem.”
Angel Studios has nevertheless marketed “Sound of Freedom” with a combination of moral urgency and overt solicitation.
“We can make ‘Sound of Freedom’ the ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of 21st-century slavery,” an emphatic Caviezel tells viewers as the credits roll. “... But it will only have that effect if millions of people see it. Now I know it’s weird because we’re in a theater, but feel free to pull out your phones and scan this QR code. We don’t want finances to be the reason someone doesn’t see this movie.”
Viewers who comply are sent to the movie’s fundraising page, where you can buy a ticket for yourself, claim a free one through the Pay it Forward program, or contribute between $15 and $150,000 to Angel Studios.
A ticker on the page estimates that more than 15 million tickets have been sold or redeemed — though it’s unclear how the number was derived. “The vast majority of tickets are being bought by human, everyday people in a normal purchase flow,” a spokesman for the studio told the Hollywood Reporter on Aug. 8.
It’s also unclear how much Angel has raised from “Sound of Freedom” fans, and whether it’s using the money for anything besides charity tickets. The company announced in July that it was helping anti-trafficking nonprofits — by reimbursing them if they book a private theater to show the movie and fill it to 70 percent capacity. “Angel Studios’ goal is to raise global awareness,” the release says, “but not get in the way of solutions that can arise from that awareness.”
Awareness has undoubtedly been raised since “Sound of Freedom” hit theaters on July 4. Of what, exactly, is less certain.
Within days of the film’s opening, rumors went viral on social media that AMC was tampering with lights and temperatures to drive people out of the theaters.
“They silence anybody who talks about this stuff, but it’s such an important message,” says a man claiming that his viewing was spoiled by a malfunctioning air conditioner in a TikTok that was liked more than 110,000 times. “There’s so many involved in sex trafficking of children, harvesting of organs, adrenochroming, slavery, it’s all literally happening around us, and it can happen to you.”
Adrenochroming refers to an urban legend that pedophiles are harvesting a narcotic chemical the body produces under torture. Caviezel, who could not be reached for comment, mentioned adrenochroming while promoting “Sound of Freedom” at a conspiracy-theorist-filled convention in Las Vegas two years ago. He doubled down on his belief in an interview with Charlie Kirk a few days after the movie opened, complaining that QAnon adherents were being vilified for “investigating this stuff.”
Angel Studios seems to be trying to distance itself from such activity without explicitly criticizing the film’s star or fans.
“Anybody who watches this film knows that this film is not about conspiracy theories. … It’s not about politics,” Neal Harmon told the New York Times last month.
The studio put out another statement shortly after, as portions of its audience threatened to boycott movie theater companies over the sabotage rumors. “We want to make it clear these rumors are not accurate,” Angel’s head of theatrical distribution said. “... We ask that anyone attending a screening of SOUND OF FREEDOM show kindness to their local theater staff.”
Then, in early August, Newsweek reported that one of the film’s crowdfunders had been arrested in Missouri on a charge of child kidnapping. National headlines noted that the man was listed with thousands of other crowdfunders in the credits for “Sound of Freedom,” which rolled while Caviezel made his fundraising pitch to the audience.
“The names you see here on the screen took a stand and they made sure this story could be shown to all of you,” the actor said.
After the arrest, Neal Harmon put out a less-impassioned statement: “Just as anyone can invest in the stock market, everyone who meets the legal criteria can invest in Angel Studios projects.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Jim Caviezel did not respond to an interview request. In fact, the actor could not be reached. The story has been corrected.
Sound of Freedom was filmed in 2018 by director Alejandro Gómez Monteverde, but its release was delayed after Disney acquired its original distributor, Fox — a fact that has led to false rumors that Hollywood tried to shut the film down.What is the story behind the Sound of Freedom? ›
What is 'Sound of Freedom' about? “Sound of Freedom” is based on the real story of Tim Ballard, a former U.S. Department for Homeland Security agent who conducts sting operations to rescue a young brother and sister from human trafficking in Colombia.What's the deal with the Sound of Freedom? ›
Christian thriller 'Sound of Freedom' faces criticism for stoking conspiracy theories Sound of Freedom is a surprise box office hit. But the Christian thriller is also fueling controversy over conspiracy theories and its depiction of human trafficking.How much money has Sound of Freedom made? ›
As of August 4 2023, the latest figures show Sound of Freedom has made $155 million at the box office following its July 4 release. This is an impressive sum, especially given that the film has only been released in North American cinemas so far, and its production budget is estimated to be approximately $14.5 million.