The brothers behind ‘Sound of Freedom,’ ‘The Chosen’ and Angel Studios

Within the Utah advertising scene the place Daniel, Jordan, Jeffrey and Neal Harmon are typically spoken of as geniuses, it appeared clear by opening day for “Sound of Freedom” that the brothers had proven Hollywood the way it’s performed.

The Harmons’ newest launch, a low-budget motion flick about an American who hunts pedophiles by way of the Colombian jungle, almost topped the brand new “Indiana Jones” on July 4 and has since cleared $165 million on the field workplace. To not point out screenings on the U.S. Capitol and Donald Trump’s golf membership, and a whole bunch of hundreds of thousands of TikTok customers who’ve watched movies of each other opining in regards to the world sex-trafficking disaster in residing rooms and movie show parking heaps.

All the things about “Sound of Freedom” that sure critics hated — its dramatic oversimplification of kid trafficking, its moralizing overtones — was spun into gold by the well-oiled, whole-wheat advertising equipment at Angel Studios, a form of anti-Hollywood the brothers based within the foothills of Mormon nation.

“Preorder your tickets today and you can send a message that God’s children are no longer for sale,” the movie’s star Jim Caviezel says on the finish of the trailer, trying straight into the digital camera as he implores viewers to evangelize the movie and, if they’ll afford it, give cash to the studio.

However the Harmons’ hype machine developed a wobble.

Clips began to unfold of Caviezel selling “Sound of Freedom” at a gathering of QAnoners and different conspiracy theorists, the place he claimed traffickers have been torturing youngsters to reap chemical compounds they secreted. Among the fan movies on TikTok turned paranoid, accusing film theaters of sabotaging screenings to maintain folks from watching the movie. One among hundreds of crowdfunders whose title appeared within the movie’s credit was arrested in connection to a baby kidnapping.

The Harmons are out of the blue within the heart of their very own highlight, as Angel Studios places out assertion after assertion distancing itself from the rhetoric and conduct of some followers. However this isn’t the primary time the brothers have hit head winds of their said mission to construct a faith-based leisure empire. Along with what could be the preferred TV present about Jesus in historical past, their résumé features a chapter, a lawsuit by Hollywood studios and a film deal that turned bitter.

“They pride themselves on being a light-bearing company,” stated Ashley Bratcher, a filmmaker who stated she severed ties with Angel Studios after she turned involved about its fundraising practices. “I think there’s a lot of stuff done in the dark with this studio.”

Whereas the brothers have an uncanny knack for making tasks go viral, they’ve little social media presence themselves and have a tendency to let phrase of mouth do the speaking. A spokesman for Angel Studios declined to make them obtainable for interviews for this story.

Jeffrey Harmon did communicate to The Submit for a profile in 2016, the place he stated he and his siblings — there are 9 in complete, with varied combos of brothers holding titles within the household’s constellation of corporations — grew up poor in Idaho farm nation, promoting potatoes door-to-door.

By the 2010s, they have been operating Harmon Brothers LLC in Provo, Utah, a small metropolis that homes Brigham Younger College, the flagship faculty of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to which the household belongs.

The brothers rapidly made a reputation for themselves in native circles. “It’d be impossible to not know the Harmon brothers. I genuinely think they’re geniuses.” stated Clint Betts, founding father of Silicon Slopes, a nonprofit that promotes tech corporations within the space. “They’re really good at telling stories and getting people’s attention.”

Their firm initially made advertisements for intimate merchandise like tongue scrapers and toilet deodorizers, staking out a distinct segment between wholesomeness and edginess. Their largest hit from that interval was a viral video for a supposedly colon-enhancing bathroom add-on known as the Squatty Potty, wherein a unicorn pooped rainbow coloured ice cream onto a conveyor belt. It was seen greater than 100 million instances throughout YouTube and Fb.

“There’s nothing in my beliefs that says, ‘You can’t talk about poo,’” Jeffrey instructed The Submit on the time.

The Harmons have been already increasing their imaginative and prescient from YouTube to Hollywood by then. They launched an internet service known as VidAngel in 2014, which Daniel Harmon described to the Deseret Information as a technique to filter “bosoms, blood and bad words” out of your favourite motion pictures and exhibits.

“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 with out permission so it may take away unwholesome bits, based on a copyright infringement lawsuit filed by Disney, twentieth Century Studios, Lucasfilm and Warner Bros. in 2016. The corporate would technically promote the DVD to a buyer for $20 earlier than modifying it and streaming the censored model to them, then supply to purchase it again for $19 the following day — successfully making a $1-per-day rental firm.

The sophisticated system allowed the Harmons to defend their enterprise underneath the Household Film Act of 2005, which permits prospects to edit movies they purchase. However underneath stress from the lawsuit, VidAngel reorganized in a chapter and at last settled with the studios in 2020, agreeing to not copy, stream or distribute their movies with out permission.

VidAngel nonetheless exists, with choices to censor authorized titles from Netflix, Apple TV and others streamers, although no Disney or Warner Bros. content material.

And the Harmons have continued to increase their empire, rebranding their flagship firm as Angel Studios in 2021.

The brothers don’t simply sanitize Hollywood productions anymore. They compete with them.

The Angel Studios app seems like a Christianized model of Netflix, with angelic mild suffusing thumbnails for free-to-watch titles reminiscent of “His Only Son” and “Testament.” Buttons everywhere in the display screen immediate customers to unfold the great phrase by commenting, sharing or giving cash to the corporate, whose catchline is, “Be a Part of Stories that Amplify Light.”

Neil Harmon, Angel’s chief government, would possibly pop up in a window to ensure youngsters 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 your world,” he says. “We want the very best for you so thank you for stopping this show and talking to your parents first.”

Otherwise you would possibly see faith-focused director Dallas Jenkins in a “Binge Jesus” shirt, plugging his streaming sequence in regards to the lifetime of Jesus, which the Harmons’ firm introduced in 2019 because the “No. 1 crowdfunded media project in history.”

“The Chosen” has been watched 555,955,158 instances as of Saturday morning, based on a consistently rising ticker on the app. A button invitations you to “Pay it forward to help create future seasons.”

Fifteen {dollars} will “bring the show to 10 people/month,” based on the app. For $100,000, you may carry it to 200,000 folks and get your title within the credit. However Angel doesn’t report how a lot cash it collects by way of its “Pay it Forward” packages. Neither is it totally clear what it does with the cash followers give it.

A lot of the $40 million price range for the upcoming Season 4 of the “The Chosen” was coated by donations to a nonprofit that backs the present and has no affiliation with the Harmons, based on the present’s web site. Angel Studios contributed $8.5 million by way of its Pay it Ahead program, the web page states, and retains about half of the cash it collects by way of its app for different functions. Final month, the CW Community began airing the present on TV for the primary time.

Angel now advertises Pay it Ahead packages for 15 exhibits and flicks underneath its umbrella. Small print on the fee display screen for a few of them notes that the corporate will personal the funds “and may use them at its sole discretion to further the Angel Studios’ mission of amplifying light through impactful stories.”

The crowdfunding mannequin used to launch “The Chosen” is much like one described by Bratcher, an actress who gained a conservative following after starring within the antiabortion movie “Unplanned.” She stated Angel Studios approached her in late 2021 with a deal that regarded good, at first.

Angel wished to assist her develop and distribute a function film primarily based on her brief movie “Pharma,” which follows a health care provider’s fights to maintain a drug designed to deal with being pregnant nausea off the market within the Nineteen Sixties due to its hyperlink to delivery defects. The corporate gave her seed cash to construct hype for a crowdfunding marketing campaign that will faucet Angel’s passionate flock of supporters. (Bratcher declined to say how a lot, citing a confidentiality settlement).

However Bratcher stated working with Angel Studios “just kept getting more and more difficult.”

After a number of delays launching the crowdfunding website, she stated, the cash began rolling in. However she stated she balked when Angel Studios pressed her to spend big quantities of it — between $200,000 and $300,000 — on social media commercials to drum up much 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 stated. “For me, it didn’t feel good.”

In June, Bratcher stated, issues over budgets and artistic management led her and her enterprise accomplice to terminate their contract with Angel Studios. She nonetheless has $400,000 she raised for the movie on Angel’s platforms and plans to make use of it to provide the film on her personal.

Angel Studios didn’t reply to questions from The Submit however instructed the Hollywood Reporter this month that it launched Bratcher from her contract after the crowdfunding fell far wanting a $5 million objective, amongst different points.

One failed venture could be not more than a blip on Angel’s résumé. The corporate introduced in January 2022 that it had earned $100 million “just one year after Disney and Warner Bros. tried to shut the studio down.” A enterprise capital agency had invested one other $47 million in what Neal Harmon described as “our long-term mission of remaking the entertainment industry.”

That objective seems nearer at hand after “Sound of Freedom” turned the sleeper hit of the summer time. However the darkish, PG-13 motion movie could be very completely different from the family-friendly tasks that fill most of Angel’s catalogue.

The movie is loosely primarily based on the self-described rescue operations of Tim Ballard, a former Division of Homeland Safety agent who units up sting operations to catch little one intercourse traffickers in different nations, and has sometimes flirted with the viral QAnon motion that posits youngsters are being kidnapped, bought and shipped throughout the globe by a conspiracy of wealthy and highly effective elites.

There aren’t any QAnon theories in “Sound of Freedom.” Caviezel, recognized for taking part in Jesus in Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie “The Passion of the Christ,” portrays Ballard extra like Rambo, stealing by way of legal hideouts to rescue a Honduran lady who was kidnapped to Colombia by legal thugs.

A spokesman for Polaris, an anti-trafficking group that Angel Studios repeatedly cites on its “How to Help Combat Child Trafficking” web page, stated the film’s plot bears little resemblance to actuality, the place victims are sometimes manipulated by abusers they know in methods that may’t be solved with heroic rescues or flashy stings.

Such motion pictures “mislead people to believe that if they see something, they will act and they will intervene and be the heroes of the situation,” stated 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 however marketed “Sound of Freedom” with a mix of ethical urgency and overt solicitation.

“We can make ‘Sound of Freedom’ the ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ of 21st century slavery,” an emphatic Caviezel tells viewers because the credit 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 despatched to the film’s fundraising web page, the place you should buy a ticket for your self, declare a free one by way of the Pay it Ahead program, or contribute between $15 and $150,000 to Angel Studios.

A ticker on the web page estimates that greater than 15 million tickets have been bought or redeemed — although it’s unclear how the quantity was derived. “The vast majority of tickets are being bought by human, everyday people in a normal purchase flow,” a spokesman for the studio instructed the Hollywood Reporter on Aug. 8.

It’s additionally unclear how a lot Angel has raised from “Sound of Freedom” followers, and whether or not it’s utilizing the cash for something in addition to charity tickets. The corporate introduced in July that it was serving to anti-trafficking nonprofits — by reimbursing them in the event that they ebook a personal theater to point out the film and fill it to 70 % capability. “Angel Studios’ goal is to raise global awareness,” the discharge 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, precisely, is much less sure.

Inside days of the movie’s opening, rumors went viral on social media that AMC was tampering with lights and temperatures to drive folks out of the theaters.

“They silence anybody who talks about this stuff, but it’s such an important message,” a person whose claiming that his viewing was spoiled by a dysfunctional malfunctioning air conditioner says in a TikTok video that was preferred greater than 110,000 instances. “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 city legend that pedophiles are harvesting a narcotic chemical the physique produces underneath torture. Caviezel, who didn’t reply to an interview request, talked about adrenochroming whereas selling “Sound of Freedom” at a conspiracy theorist-filled conference in Las Vegas two years in the past. He doubled down on his perception in an interview with Charlie Kirk a couple of days after the film opened, complaining that QAnon adherents have been being vilified for “investigating this stuff.”

Angel Studios appears to be attempting to distance itself from such exercise with out explicitly criticizing the movie’s star or followers.

“Anybody who watches this film knows that this film is not about conspiracy theories … it’s not about politics,” Neal Harmon instructed the New York Occasions final month.

The studio put out one other assertion two days later, as parts of its viewers threatened to boycott movie show corporations over the sabotage rumors. “We want to make it clear these rumors are not accurate,” Angel’s head of theatrical distribution stated. “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 many movie’s crowdfunders had been arrested in Missouri on a cost of kid kidnapping. Nationwide headlines famous that the person was listed with hundreds of different crowdfunders within the credit for “Sound of Freedom,” which rolled whereas Caviezel made his fundraising pitch to the viewers.

“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 stated.

After the arrest, Neal Harmon put out a much less impassioned assertion: “Just as anyone can invest in the stock market, everyone who meets the legal criteria can invest in Angel Studios projects.”

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