Pro-Trump news outlet The Epoch Times enters the faith-based movie market

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In recent years, The Epoch Times has amassed a large audience as a publisher of right-wing news articles and peddler of baseless election conspiracies. This summer, the conservative media company is hoping to conquer new territory: Hollywood.

Epoch Studios, a branch of the wider Epoch Times Association, plans to release “The Firing Squad,” a drama starring Kevin Sorbo and Cuba Gooding Jr. as drug smugglers who find God behind bars.

“The Firing Squad” marks Epoch’s entry into the growing market of faith-based cinema, a genre that includes recent box-office successes such as “Sound of Freedom,” “Unsung Hero” and “Jesus Revolution.” The film’s Aug. 2 theatrical debut comes as other right-wing media companies are pushing into entertainment, releasing content that counters what conservatives view as Hollywood’s progressive and secular agenda.

The creation of Epoch Studios has caught the attention of those who have closely watched the New York-based media company’s ascent from a fringe print newspaper startup formed in 2000 by followers of Falun Gong, a religious group persecuted in China, into a prominent conservative outlet with content amplifying Donald Trump’s conspiracies and right-wing messaging.

NBC News has previously reported that the Election Integrity Partnership, a coalition of researchers that documented misinformation around the 2020 election, cited The Epoch Times for repeatedly spreading false and misleading stories about voter fraud as well as debunked conspiracy theories about Dominion voting machines and the baseless “Stop the Steal” movement.

“Given its extreme sense of persecution by the Chinese Communist Party, it makes sense for Falun Gong to produce content that reinforces a sense of persecution among Christians — cultivating a shared sensibility and opening possibilities for continued political alliance,” said A.J. Bauer, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Alabama who studies right-wing media.

In a news release announcing “The Firing Squad,” Epoch Studios described itself as a “platform for storytelling that fosters hope, healing, and growth.” The studio is overseen by executive director Sally Sun, who has supervised Epoch documentaries and streaming specials, some with religious themes, such as “Divine Messengers” and “Church & State.” 

The Epoch Times Association did not respond to a request for comment on this article.

Tim Chey, who wrote and directed “The Firing Squad,” told NBC News he is grateful that Epoch Studios came aboard his passion project as a co-producer and distributor.

“I’m a huge fan of Epoch Times. I absolutely love these guys,” Chey said in a recent interview.

Chey’s film follows three Christians — played by actors Sorbo (TV’s “Hercules”), Gooding Jr. and James Barrington — who are set to be executed by firing squad in Indonesia. (Right-wing audiences may seek out the film in part because of Sorbo, a pro-Trump conservative activist who previously appeared in the Christian film “God’s Not Dead” and produces faith-based movies through his own production company.)

“The Firing Squad” is inspired by actual events in the country in 2015, when eight people convicted of drug smuggling were put to death. One of them, an Australian national, became a Christian pastor while on death row and led the singing of Christian songs while the smugglers were being executed. (The Southeast Asian nation is known for its strict drug laws.)

Chey was in Singapore as the real-life prison saga happened to be unfolding and watched live coverage on cable news. He said he was moved by the reports of religious fervor inside the prison walls: “They all went out singing ‘Amazing Grace’ as they faced their execution,” he recalled. “I said: I have to make this movie.”

Chey, who previously directed faith-based films like “Suing the Devil” (2011) and “Final: The Rapture” (2013), said he scouted shooting locations across the U.S. — Illinois, Louisiana, Georgia — before “God opened the door” to the ideal backdrop: an abandoned prison just an hour south of where he and his wife live in Florida. The film, which was made for under $5 million, was shot in two months.

“I’m proud of the film’s look,” Chey said, “and that’s all that matters.”

The creators of “The Firing Squad” are looking for support from a wide evangelical church network to help drive ticket sales.

“Sound of Freedom,” a thriller about human trafficking with Christian themes, was distributed by Utah-based Angel Studios, earning almost $250 million worldwide on a $14.5 million budget. “Sound” was a massive sleeper hit in the summer of “Barbenheimer.”

The thriller attracted flocks of conservative audiences and encouraged moviegoers to buy tickets for others as part of a “Pay it Forward” model. “The Firing Squad” is employing a similar program and crowdsourcing its promotional investment. The film has reached more than $1.8 million of its $5 million online fundraising goal to “cover the TV, Radio, billboard, and digital advertising expenses.”

The celebrities endorsing the movie include country singer Randy Travis and retired NFL quarterback Brett Favre, who said in a promotion that “the filmmakers would love for you to see it and hope to win 1 million souls to Jesus.”

Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore, a company that tracks box office data, said the growing appeal of faith-based films with overtly religious themes and more subtle messaging represents a “demographic that often has been left out of the box office equation.”

“This is good for movie theatres’ bottom-line revenues and for movie fans looking for entertainment that reflects their values and perspective,” he said.

But whether Epoch Studios can attain the cultural prominence and commercial reach of other conservative and Christian-focused media companies remains to be seen. (“The Firing Squad” debuts in theaters the same weekend as the kid-friendly “Harold and the Purple Crayon” and a new psychological thriller from M. Night Shyamalan.)

The Daily Wire, which was founded by conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro and film director Jeremy Boreing, launched its own movie and TV studio in 2021. Fox Nation, the entertainment unit of Fox News, runs a streaming service that hosts various reality shows and historical documentaries. Great American Pure Flix, a production company with a streaming service, features Christian-themed movies that have found mainstream success, including the “God’s Not Dead” series.

Big corporate players have clearly seen a business opportunity, too. Sony Pictures owns the independent Christian studio Affirm Films, which has produced and distributed titles such as the Jennifer Garner vehicle “Miracles From Heaven” and last year’s “Big George Foreman.”

In the meantime, Epoch Studios’ parent company is coming under a microscope. Federal prosecutors last month announced charges against Weidong “Bill” Guan, the company’s chief financial officer, for allegedly laundering at least $67 million. The accusations against Guan are unrelated to the company’s newsgathering activities, the Justice Department said. Guan has pleaded not guilty and was released on a $3 million personal recognizance bond. The Epoch Times has temporarily suspended Guan.

The Epoch Times has said it plans to “fully cooperate with any investigation dealing with the allegations.” In a further statement posted on its website, the nonprofit company reiterated that “one person’s alleged wrongdoing does not represent the entire staff or the whole organization,” and claims some news outlets are portraying it in a “false light” because its founders are Falun Gong practitioners.

The Chinese government banned Falun Gong, which combines tenets of Buddhism and Taoism, in 1999, and considers it a cult.

When asked about the money laundering charges against Guan, Chey, “The Firing Squad” director, defended the executive and insisted he was “innocent until proven guilty.”

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