The formula that turned ‘Sound of Freedom’ into an unusual blockbuster

The film — produced by the Mexican actor and conservative activist Eduardo Verástegui — premiered in Latin America, having received support from far-right political figures, such as Mayor Sandra Cuevas in Mexico and President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador

Sound of Freedom
A scene from 'Sound of Freedom.'ANGEL STUDIOS
Andrés Rodríguez

“The movie that the elites don’t want you to see.” Searching this phrase on Google generates more than three million results. And — at least, on the first page — the film Sound of Freedom is what pops up. Since its release on July 4 in the United States, the movie — produced by Mexican actor and conservative activist Eduardo Verástegui — has generated controversy and high expectations. These two ingredients have allowed the film, which had a budget of less than $15 million, to rake in more than $180 million in the U.S. alone, surpassing ticket sales for new installments of franchises such as Indiana Jones or Mission Impossible.

The film directed by Mexican national Alejandro Monteverde is based on the true story of Tim Ballard, a former agent of the Department of Homeland Security who was dedicated to combating pedophilia. The film — starring Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) — recounts a part of Ballard’s life. After getting fed up with hunting down criminals in his country without tackling the Latin American mafias that traffic in children, he decides to go undercover in Colombia, dismantling a criminal network and freeing over 50 minors.

Verástegui says in a video posted on his Facebook account on July 5 that he had a contract with 20th Century Fox for the distribution of the film for years. However, the purchase of the studio by Disney disrupted what had been planned. The ownership of the film changed hands and the producer was told the following: “This film isn’t for Disney.” Following the disappointment, neither Netflix nor Amazon nor Lionsgate showed any interest in the movie, the producer recalls.

After a year of negotiations, the rights were finally recovered. Angel Studios — an independent company with Christian leanings based in the state of Utah — appeared on the scene. “In five days, we signed the contract. Some incredible people; people of faith, of God. [They had] integrity. It was the fastest contract that I’ve ever signed in my life,” Verástegui says.

The controversy around the film has arisen following a snowball effect of misinformation. Movie theater chains were accused of purposefully causing technical issues or removing the movie from cinemas “in favor of the woke agenda” by several fans of Sound of Freedom. Both Angel Studios and the movie theater chains, such as AMC, had to come out to quell the boycott being encouraged against exhibition venues by the conspiracy theorists. This was before there was a clear date for the film’s release in Central and South America, or contracts with any streaming platform. Sound of Freedom — recommended for audiences over the age of 13 in the U.S. — eventually arrived in Latin American theaters on August 31.

“In the film, there are no secret rituals or elites abusing their power and influence. There are no attacks on Republicans or openly Catholic-Christian speeches. It’s not even saying that all Central and South American men are bad. There’s none of that. Despite everything that surrounds the film, technically, it’s very well done, it’s not boring. It’s talking about an important topic in an interesting way. What seems very lamentable to me is creating conspiracy theories to generate interest around it, because it’s very well-made and has a lot of cinematographic quality,” opines Ryu Murillo, a filmmaker and university professor.

Murillo compares the promotion of Sound of Freedom to what was carried out in 1999, during the release of The Blair Witch Project. While there are obvious differences between the two movies, he emphasizes that both promotional strategies were based on the same concept: to sell something that isn’t true. The distributor of the famous horror film supported the false advertising campaign, by saying that The Blair Witch Project was composed of footage found in the forest, after the disappearance of three filmmakers.

Another factor in the success of Sound of Freedom is the “pay-it-forward” model encouraged by Angel Studios. The studio uses a crowdfunding system: through its website, it allows the cost of a ticket to be covered for someone who otherwise wouldn’t be able to see the film. From the same site, it also allows you to get up to two free tickets for a viewing “thanks to the generosity of others.” This format — which has allowed the studio to sell more than 17 million tickets and exceed its goal of 2 million tickets by 863%, according to their website — also works for Mexico, Colombia, Argentina, Chile, as well as other smaller countries, such as El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Costa Rica.

While the film doesn’t utilize a Catholic-Christian discourse — except for the slogan that promotes it: “the children of God are not for sale” — it has managed to appeal to an ultra-religious segment of the population. “That ultra-conservative circle has great purchasing power. It’s a movie that has sold many tickets, but the theaters are empty. It’s a very interesting phenomenon,” professor Murillo explains. Ironically, it’s partly because of this that calls to boycott chains such as AMC arose, with some members of the public asking: “Why are there no tickets, if the theaters are empty?”

“From south to north and from north to south, Sound of Freedom continues to grow. The anti-trafficking movement already covers the entire American continent, from Alaska to the Andes. This film is triggering a global reaction, which they will no longer be able to stop,” Verástegui commented during his visit to Argentina, according to the Catholic news outlet ACI Prensa.

In Mexico, Sandra Cuevas — mayor of the Cuauhtémoc district in Mexico City, one of the most prosperous areas of the capital — intends to implement a tough-on-crime model in the style of the Salvadoran president. A woman with big political aspirations, she also expressed her support for the film. She saw it for the first time during her visit to Washington, D.C., after meeting with leaders of the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) — an association to which Verástegui also belongs — which brings together ultra-Catholics and anti-abortion activists.

“The responsibility [against trafficking] is federal [in Mexico]. My duty is social, helping in prevention, awareness. I will broadcast the film Sound of Freedom in the public squares of #Cuauhtémoc,” Cuevas tweeted, after the Mexican premiere of the Verástegui film.

“The more information you have access to, the less conspiracy theories are likely to work. It’s convenient for the distributors to maintain the discourse that this is the film ‘that they don’t want you to see,’ because it generates curiosity. And, if you’re [only] speaking to these conservative and economically well-off circles — and if you say to those who cannot afford to see it that they should ‘boycott’ [the theaters] — that adds to the phenomenon,” Murillo concludes.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS