Christian studio eyes 'culture wars' challenge to Hollywood


Hollywood's alleged "wokeness" is a frequent target for right-wing commentators and politicians.

But for the tiny Utah-based movie studio behind last year's huge breakout hit film "Sound of Freedom," it is a lucrative gap in the market.

"Hollywood is just this bubble. They're not connected with the average person," said Angel Studios co-founder Jordan Harmon.

"We make movies for the other 90 percent," he told AFP.

Co-founded by four Mormon brothers, Angel Studios rocked hollywood last July with its wildly successful thriller about a vigilante who takes on a child sex trafficking ring.

Debuting days after the fifth "Indiana Jones" film, "Sound of Freedom" left Disney's pricey franchise in the dust, going on to gross $250 million worldwide.

Featuring overt religious messages, and with a plot that some likened to QAnon conspiracy theories, the film found itself at the heart of the United States' "culture wars."

But according to Harmon, it is a failure to cater to both sides of those stark ideological fractures that has left Hollywood box office hauls in recent decline.

In return for monthly fees, a membership base known as the "Angel Guild" gets to vote via a mobile app on which movies or shows the studio should buy, make and release.

"It's just entrepreneurship 101," said Harmon. "Listen to what your customer wants, and do it."

- 'Pay it forward' -

Angel Studios began life as VidAngel, a service that enabled parents to watch popular films and shows with the "bosoms, blood and bad words" removed.

A first entanglement with Hollywood ensued over copyright infringement. The brothers rebranded and shifted to making original titles.

Today, many Angel films and shows feature heavily Christian themes or stories, and the company's manifesto promises content that "amplifies light."

"The Chosen," a television series about the life of Jesus, originally released by VidAngel, claims more than 700 million episode views.

But the company has come under fierce criticism, particularly since "Sound of Freedom."

A "pay it forward" model that encouraged fans to buy theater tickets for strangers and spread the film's message was accused of artificially inflating box office figures.

Some questioned how Angel was actually spending the money, leading the company to publish a spreadsheet of costs and profits online.

Along with accusations of peddling conspiracy theories, the film was accused of mischaracterizing the problem of trafficking.

While fans said it drew attention to a devastating and important problem, others accused the film of exaggerating facts.

"Haters can criticize all they want," said Harmon.

"Everybody all of a sudden framed it as 'this is a right-leaning movie,' when in reality there's nothing in it that's right-leaning," he added.

- 'Very pro-life' -

Angel's next film, "Sound of Hope: The Story of Possum Trot," is being launched over the July 4 weekend, and comes with an activist message of its own.

It tells the true story of a small Texas town in the 1990s, when 22 families decided to tackle the foster care crisis and adopt dozens of at-risk children.

Coming in a US election year, the film is "very, very pro-life," says Harmon, even if it does not directly tackle the nation's raging debate over abortion.

While another "Sound of Freedom"-level hit seems improbable, that success helped the company grow to around 250 staff.

"David," an animated musical about the biblical king, is set for release next year, with Angel executives bullishly stating they want it to be "the most viewed animated film ever released."

The move into animation makes sense for a studio that sees Disney as emblematic of Hollywood's excessive "wokeness" and tendency to "prioritize politics over storytelling."

"They've disenfranchised and hurt their brand in such a significant way over the last years," said Harmon, pointing to Disney's recent "Star Wars: The Acolyte" series, which has been slammed in conservative circles for its heavy LGBTQ themes.

"For us as founders, our long-term vision is that we are going to try to compete with Disney on the highest level, or die trying."



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