While Barbie and Oppenheimer are the obvious breakout hits of the summer, a dark-horse movie called Sound of Freedom has proven to be its biggest box office surprise. The small movie from indie studio Angel Studios has grossed over $125 million in just three weeks, passing Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One for the third spot at the box office this past weekend. While the faith-based movie industry has had its hits, no one saw these kind of numbers coming. But the film’s popularity is at least somewhat explainable, in retrospect.
Directed by Alejandro Gómez Monteverde (Bella), Sound of Freedom stars The Passion of the Christ’s Jim Caviezel as a fictionalized version of the very real person, Tim Ballard, a former agent for the US Department of Homeland Security. In the film, Ballard quits his job to rescue a kidnapped girl in South America, but ends up saving more than 100 victims of human trafficking. These events are inspired at least in part by stories of Ballard — though their complete accuracy is hard to verify.
Sound of Freedom’s resounding success can be chalked up to a combination of the usual (being a movie that people seemingly very much enjoy, social media word of mouth) and the unusual. Here’s how a bit of creative crowdfunding and a QAnon conspiracy theory factor in.
Who is seeing Sound of Freedom?
Sound of Freedom caters to an audience that’s often underserved at the movie theater — i.e., people who just want a straightforward thriller about an American being a hero and saving the day from an unambiguous evil. While there are plenty of movies interested in people fighting bad guys, Sound of Freedom keeps things significantly more grounded than most of the other movies in this summer blockbuster season, like Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One or Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny or any number of superhero movies. It seems that most folks who see it are having a great time, based on the movie’s A+ CinemaScore — an independently run exit poll of theater goers.
But as many spectators of the indie’s success have noted, the interest in the film may run deeper from a certain sect of people.
Is Sound of Freedom a QAnon movie?
Sound of Freedom never mentions QAnon by name, but many critics say it has a lot in common with the dangerous conspiracy theory, which in many forms has suggested that there’s a secret cabal of evil elites around the world controlling global events and running a massive human trafficking and pedophilia ring (despite a lack of substantive evidence to support that belief). And that’s because the legacy of QAnon has formed an aura around Sound of Freedom that exists beyond the actual movie.
Both Ballard (the real person) and Caviezel (the actor playing him) each have their own connections to QAnon conspiracy theories. Caviezel has publicly voiced his QAnon beliefs, and spoken about it at a QAnon conference. Ballard, who founded the anti-trafficking organization Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), has become a particularly big figure in conspiracy minded groups for the work his organization is doing to fight trafficking. While OUR certainly does work to combat trafficking generally, according to a 2020 Vice report, the group is often subject to self-aggrandizing — making its missions, impact, and importance to local law enforcement out to be far greater than it actually is.
But amid a newfound interest in human-trafficking concerns prompted by the QAnon conspiracy, it’s no surprise that a group with big claims of responsibility for funding and executing law-enforcement-aided raids in the hope of rescuing trafficking victims might attract some interest. And Sound of Freedom taps into this directly.
What is Sound of Freedom’s pay-it-forward campaign?
Perhaps the most important element of Sound of Freedom’s overall success is its word-of-mouth buzz and promotion on social media. Reports suggest that the people trekking out to see the film, conspiracy minded or otherwise, are people who are particularly online and particularly sympathetic to online movements that support their cause. In other words, if someone they trust tells them to get out and see a movie, they probably will.
But social media and online movements also make gauging this movie’s actual popularity — compared to its box office take — extra difficult. Angel Studios, which produced the film, has organized a pay-it-forward campaign, encouraging viewers to donate money to be used to buy more tickets, which will be given away to prospective movie goers or interested parties who can’t afford to go on their own. Because of the huge ticket drive — which, according to Angel Studio’s website, has bought nearly 12 million tickets so far — it’s tough to say if some showings of the movie are organically sold out or simply bought out.
In other words, Sound of Freedom is an entirely modern, of-the-moment, and unique breakout hit. It’s a combination of social-media hype, and some very clever marketing by an independent studio that has found a way to compete with the biggest blockbusters of the year. But that success is also the product of, at least to some extent, dangerous conspiracy theory thought. Of course, some of Hollywood’s classic box-office hit magic is there too, in that it happens to be a movie that a lot of people seem to genuinely enjoy and tell their friends to go see.