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What You Need to Know About the $250 Million Movie ‘Sound of Freedom’

A quick guide to the year’s biggest dark-horse theatrical hit, now streaming and on demand


spinner image jim caviezel in a scene from the film sound of freedom
Jim Caviezel in "Sound of Freedom."
Angel Studios

Barbie and Oppenheimer were surprise blockbuster films, but the most astounding smash hit of the past year is Sound of Freedom, which came out of nowhere and made $250 million, more than the original release of The Godfather (in non-inflation-adjusted dollars). In the U.S., it was 2023’s ninth-biggest box office hit, beating Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour and Indiana Jones: The Dial of Destiny. It’s now streaming on Prime Video and available on demand.

“It’s an unexpected hit riding a wave of interest and popularity second only to the Barbenheimer phenomenon,” Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian tells AARP.

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Here’s what you need to know about Sound of Freedom’s success and what it signifies:

spinner image tim ballard at the premiere of the film sound of freedom
Tim Ballard attends the premiere of "Sound of Freedom" on June 28, 2023 in Vineyard, Utah.
Fred Hayes/Getty Images for Angel Studios

Sound of Freedom is based on a true story — but it’s not a documentary

It’s about Tim Ballard (played by Jim Caviezel, 55, who played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ). Ballard quit his U.S. Department of Homeland Security job to found Operation Underground Railroad (OUR), which works to prevent the sex trafficking of children. The movie dramatizes his raid on Colombian traffickers but changes many details — Ballard never killed a trafficker, for instance.

Vice News’ Tim Marchman investigated the film’s claims and told NPR, “They’re not whole-cloth falsehoods, but they reassemble things that are true or close to being true into stories that are just wildly and completely different from what actually happened.” The filmmakers disagree. “Every bad guy is real,” Ballard told the website History Vs. Hollywood, though he admits that Caviezel makes him look cooler than he really is.

It’s like a Liam Neeson movie, only better

Neeson’s wildly popular save-a-kid-from-foreign-sex-traffickers movie Taken was panned by critics, but Sound of Freedom got a positive 72 percent critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 99 percent positive rating from viewers. (Taken got 85 percent from viewers.) Variety called Sound of Freedom “a compelling movie that shines an authentic light on one of the crucial criminal horrors of our time, one that Hollywood has mostly shied away from.”

spinner image jim caviezel and javier godino sitting in a vehicle in a scene from the film sound of freedom
(Left to right) Jim Caviezel and Javier Godino in "Sound of Freedom."
Angel Studios

More than half of its audience is over 45

“The anti-sex-trafficking thriller has struck a chord with older audiences, many of whom have not been back to theaters since before the COVID pandemic,” notes CNBC’s Sarah Whitten.

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“It has found favor with moviegoers over 50 looking for something other than your typical summer movie bombast and spectacle aimed at teens and 20-somethings,” Dergarabedian says, “and this formula has been working with other films this summer as well.” Like Barbie and OppenheimerSound of Freedom is original, new, strange and strikingly different from the overfamiliar Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford blockbuster sequels that earned fewer millions than expected.

spinner image jim caviezel in a scene from the film sound of freedom
Jim Caviezel (center right) stars as Tim Ballard in the film.
Angel Studios

It’s highly controversial

Although there’s no direct connection to the conspiracy theory movement QAnon in the film, there are connections to the movement by Caviezel and Ballard. When the film was made in 2018, QAnon wasn’t as well-known, and Caviezel said he didn’t know about it then. But he did speak at a QAnon-affiliated convention in Las Vegas in October 2021 and claimed that traffickers were harvesting adrenaline by torturing children and taking their blood — an accusation leveled by QAnon followers. Both Ballard and Operation Underground Railroad stress that the film has nothing to do with that political movement.

It’s very popular with conservatives and Christians

Pundit Glenn Beck has funded Ballard’s operations, and former President Donald Trump hosted a screening of the film. Ballard cast Caviezel because “I know [he] loves Jesus, and that’s the only real requirement I have,” according to the Christian Broadcasting Network.

It’s not an overtly faith-based film, but it shows the clout of the faith community in Hollywood. “Faith-based audiences have traditionally supported movies that reflect their values,” Dergarabedian says. “Whether a film is overtly religious or a more secular film endorsed by the faith community like SOF, the results can be impressive and profitable.”

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It did an end run around the Hollywood system

Instead of depending on the whims of studio bosses and distributors, Sound of Freedom was financed by crowdfunding — many investors chipped in small sums of money online to express their support. Big studios have long been accused of finding ingenious ways to make a big hit look unprofitable to avoid paying people entitled to net profits. Former Saturday Night Live star Julia Sweeney, 64, says that when she was a Hollywood studio accountant (she based her Pat character on a coworker), people kept telling her, “At least you’re in the creative end of the industry!”

But Sound of Freedom’s investors can earn up to 120 percent of their investment before producers and distributors get paid. At the film’s conclusion, an emotional Caviezel urges viewers to buy tickets for other people and “pay it forward,” swelling ticket sales. Churches can get free tickets for some of their members. Few people buy strangers tickets to Barbie.

Faith-based film is looming larger in the movie world

According to the Pew Research Center, Americans professing Christian faith plunged from 78 percent of us in 2007 to 63 percent in 2021, while people with no religious affiliation grew from 16 percent to 29 percent. This has roused the faith community to action, and Newsweek box office expert Paul Bond writes, “Jesus is suddenly a very hot commodity in the entertainment industry.” Sound of Freedom’s Angel Studios earned more than $12 million on its crowdsourced Christian film His Only Son, which cost $250,000, and its TV show The Chosen was sold to Lionsgate studio, known for The Hunger Games. “MGM, 21st Century Fox and Sony Pictures have each launched their own faith-based studios,” Bond notes. “Martin Scorsese is planning a new film about Jesus and so is art house director Terrence Malick. And Netflix has said it is working on bringing more faith-based content to its platform.”

spinner image jim caviezel fist bumps a young boy in a scene from the film sound of freedom
Angel Studios

Sound of Freedom is part of a larger trend in movies

A study by the Christian website Movieguide found that films with values such as family, sacrifice and faith — not just overtly religious ones but films with “redemptive content” such as Top Gun: Maverick and Sonic the Hedgehog — have risen from 10 percent of all movies in 1991 to 59 percent in 2022.

And that was before Sound of Freedom made $250 million.

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