After ‘Sound of Freedom’ Success, Angel Studios Aims to Be the Next A24

After the expectation-defying success of last year’s “Sound of Freedom,” a drama about sex trafficking that took in $249.1 million at the box office last year, Angel Studios is set to release six new titles at CinemaCon — and has its sights set on building a brand in the vein of indie powerhouse A24.

While it chafes at being pigeonholed, the 10-year-old studio — founded by brothers Neal Harmon, Jeffrey Harmon, Daniel Harmon, Jordan Harmon and Benton Crane — has cemented its place in the faith-based genre, releasing films like “Cabrini,” about the life of Catholic saint Francesca Cabrini, and “The Chosen,” about the life of Jesus Christ.

In conversations with TheWrap, Angel Studios executives sought to portray the company as more than another studio focused exclusively on religious content. “People go to A24 movies because they’re A24 movies,” co-founder Jeff Harmon said. “The hope is that audience will do the same with Angel, that by seeing the logo the audience knows there’s a level of quality and brand identity they can rely on.”

Faith-based films have long proven to be a lucrative niche market. Production companies like the Sony-owned Affirm Films, Lionsgate-partnered Kingdom Story Company and the independently owned Pinnacle Peak Pictures (formerly known as PureFlix) have found Christian audiences with their films. The genre got its biggest push 20 years ago from Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ,” which earned $611 million at the global box office on a budget of $30 million, showing that a faith-based film could win a wider audience.

Angel Studios is finding its foothold in that space through a crowdfunding system that has allowed them to build their audience. Yet while other major studios lean into IP or leverage major movie stars to market their slates, Angel Studios is trying to make itself the star.

“You’ve got the Marvel Universe, you’ve got the ‘Star Wars’ universe, you’ve got the ‘Fast and the Furious’ franchise,” Jeff Harmon said. “We kind of see our films as a family universe.”

The Harmons hope to break down the barriers between filmmakers and the studio system — much like A24 did. They credit the success of “Sound of Freedom,” which had an estimated budget of $14.6 million, largely to an ambitious pay-it-forward campaign that involved audience members buying tickets for others. (Though whether those tickets were used by actual audience members remains the subject of debate.)

Angel Studios, which distributed the film, is not currently contemplating a sequel to the Jim Caviezel-starring original, mainly because the rights remain a sticking point. Instead, this April, it is debuting six titles at CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) where Angel will be presenting alongside major studios like Warner Bros. The slate will showcase Angel’s upcoming films “Sight,” “Possum Trot” and “Homestead” as well as “some surprise announcements,” the company told TheWrap.

sound of freedom angel studios
Jim Caviezel in “Sound of Freedom” (Angel Studios)

Crowd funding and picking winners

Key to the studio’s strategy is the Angel Guild, a group of 250,000 people across 155 countries that watches every proof of concept or finished film submitted to the studio and votes on what the studio will release. The Angel Guild rejected 98% of the 550 films submitted to them last year for financing, Jeff Harmon said. “That guild replaces the Hollywood gatekeeper system, and they pick winners,” he said.

“Every single filmmaker willing to embrace feedback from the Guild, they are able to take their story to market and know how it’s going to be received by the market in advance,” Neal Harmon said.

The guild acts as a governance system, democratizing the filmmaking process. Not even the Harmons can greenlight a movie without the Guild approving it first. “Executives have this tendency of either wanting to stumble into a franchise or they want to acquire a franchise,” said Jordan. “And what Angel’s doing is we are going to the audience to figure out if there’s a high degree of passion to create and then we’re creating a franchise.”

Angel Studios began in 2014 as VidAngel, best known for providing a filtering service that allowed consumers to avoid movie scenes they found objectionable for their profanity, nudity or violence. Major Hollywood studios ended up suing VidAngel for copyright infringement, eventually reaching a settlement in 2020 and rebranding it in 2021 as Angel Studios, where it began making original content.

Early on, the company launched the stand-up comedy series “Dry Bar Comedy.” It soon pivoted to a focus on stories that had an uplifting, faith-based message. “We think that one of the reasons people look at Angel Studios as faith[-based] is because … people just expect faith to be represented in their stories,” said Neal Harmon.

“Sound of Freedom” was initially projected to make between $4 million and $6 million, the Harmons said. They eventually set an internal goal of $100 million globally. The film more than doubled that.

Faith Based Content in a Secular Climate

So far, Angel Studios has relied on faith-based content to build an audience. “Cabrini,” which is currently in 2,800 theaters, and “The Chosen,” are recently released examples while their animated musical feature “David” tells the story of David and Goliath. (Jeff Harmon compared it to 1998 DreamWorks feature “The Prince of Egypt.”)

Jeff Harmon noted that mainstream studio features like Frank Capra’s 1946 drama “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the 1965 musical “The Sound of Music” and Disney’s 1960 adventure feature “Swiss Family Robinson,” didn’t highlight organized religion but put an emphasis on faith and hope.

“They had prayer in them, they had faith in them, but nobody considers them faith movies,” he said. “It’s just a part of society. Our films are like that where, when there’s faith elements, they feel natural. It’s not hitting you over the head with a preachy sermon.”

Cristiana Dell’Anna in “Cabrini” (Angel Studios)

Neal Harmon cited a 2022 study from HarrisX for the Faith & Media Initiative that said 73% of people identity with some type of faith-based system. “If you switch out the gatekeepers from nihilists in Hollywood to the average person around the world then you’re immediately going to have a natural representation of faith that’s more diverse than what we’re currently seeing out of the system,” Jeff Harmon said.

It’s an approach similar to the ones taken by Jon and Andrew Erwin’s Kingdom Story Company, which has partnered with Lionsgate to release films like the football biopic “American Underdog” and the recently released “Ordinary Angels,” which appeal to faith-based film lovers but take a more general, inspirational tone to appeal to wider audiences, alongside films like “Jesus Revolution” which is more explicitly about the Christian faith.

Angel’s goal is to cater to both audiences with an interest in faith and those just seeking a good story. For the Harmons, the bigger thing is to cultivate storytellers who would never get a shot through the typical Hollywood channels.

“David” co-director and writer Brent Dawes is one example. A Cape Town, South Africa native, Dawes worked on a farm without power. He watched his first movie at the age of 14. The Harmons want to give him and his Cape Town studio Sunrise Productions a platform to craft works that will impact people’s lives.

And they are developing a pool of future creatives they can draw on. “Sound of Freedom” director Alejandro Monteverde, for example, is “teaching a lot of the other people at Angel, a lot of other creatives at Angel, [by] bringing his skill set to help us,” said Neal Harmon.

At CinemaCon, Angel executives hope to showcase to the theatrical community how their films prioritize seeing things in a movie theater.

“People just want to be with community and experience stories together,” said Neal Harmon. “We believe in that experience, and we want to show the industry how to make it successful and profitable.”

Jeremy Fuster contributed to this story.

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