Interview: Neal Harmon and the Reckoning of Mainstream Entertainment

“Hollywood got stuck in its own bubble and was not in touch with the rest of the world.”

Angel Studios isn't an overnight success. You've been working on it for a long time. How has culture in America changed to make Americans more receptive to the entertainment that Angel Studios is creating?

Angel Studios is named after people who helped fund it, the angel investors. They helped fund “The Chosen” and many projects we've done. They don't feel that the stories they want for their own families are being told, so they’re doing something about it.

This phenomenon evolved because of the confluence of new technology, which made it possible to distribute via different methods for less money. Meanwhile, changes in culture left Hollywood stuck in its own bubble; it was out of touch with the rest of the world. Those factors opened up an opportunity for Angel.

Would Angel Studios would have succeeded 20 years ago before the mass polarization in entertainment?

I really don't know. We arrived on the scene at the right time. Traditional studios lost the trust of a large audience. Angel’s brand is built on trust because it represents the audience. They vote on everything we do and decide what we take to market, so the brand represents them.

And Angel isn't polarizing. After our last movie, “Cabrini,” Jordan Peterson and Whoopi Goldberg said they loved it. When was the last time those two agreed on anything?

Will Disney and other Hollywood institutions examine themselves and rethink their approach?

There's lots of consolidation right now: Paramount is for sale, Lionsgate is for sale, and Warner Brothers and Disney just agreed to a bundle deal. Industry models aren't working anymore. Suddenly, the biggest and the strongest are surviving. Quite frankly, big tech companies seem to be in a better position to control media than traditional studios.

We're approaching it from the bottom of the market, serving an underserved market. We're focused on profitability and making these stories sustainable, so we're doing smaller budget films than the big studios. Big-budget IP bets are not necessarily paying off anymore.

I'm not sure how this will look, but I know there will be fewer big players. Smaller actors like Angel will build a brand-new model.

We already see companies copying that model. Tubi launched something that looks very familiar; it's like the Angel Guild. Other people will experiment in this space and try to find a model that can move forward. Hopefully, it's a profitable model for true stories which are less expensive to tell, because the world needs great and true stories to give us hope when life is hard.

What impact will Angel Studios have on young generations as it delivers on its mission of providing families with appropriate, faith-based movies?

Well, we started this company because we wanted great stories with great values for our children and grandchildren, and we didn't see a path in traditional Hollywood studios.

We created Angel Studios ten years ago to solve that problem and we're very overcome by the support we've received. I can't believe how far we’ve come and the impact we're making.

We're just this little teeny studio started by farmers. For our work to be talked about, appreciated, and watched worldwide shows that we're on the right track — that we're solving a problem society wants solved.

As long as we're doing that, there's hope for our children and grandchildren. Maybe major studios and big tech companies will get on board and decide, “This is what people need and want, so we're going to move in that direction.” It’s a win if people copy what we're doing.

Have you felt the religious or spiritual revival happening in the country?

One consistent comment I've seen on social media is “Angel has given me a reason to pay attention to the media again, and pay attention to going to theaters again. I haven't gone in 10 years.” I see similar comments repeatedly: “I’m ready to start. I want to get involved. I want to go to Angel films.” And that's exciting.

There's a spiritual component to this journey. I don't have enough data on Gen Z, but I do know that “None” is the fastest-growing category of religious faiths. I've heard, though, that even among people who say that they're not part of any faith, there are very spiritual people. Angel Studios is telling stories that amplify light, and people inherently gravitate toward the light.

If that's our North Star, then we believe that people on a spiritual journey will gravitate toward these stories because, honestly, the very best, most popular stories ever told have a spiritual thread to them — something bigger than the material world.

I was just thinking about Star Wars and said, “Wait a second. This sounds very familiar. This is coming from the Bible.” Those types of stories do resonate.

Yeah, the idea of the force, good versus evil in the empire — it's a spiritual battle that's been retold.

The scale of your mission is almost daunting. How did you decide to start something so big?

The process started when we wanted to show a movie to our nine-year-old son, Michael. I developed technology to show him “Cinderella Man” so he could learn the principle of honesty, minus the language that the coach uses in the movie. That was it.

A year later, we were asking ourselves what we wanted to do for our next business, and this was an idea we had discussed. We did some research and found that a lot of parents wanted the same.

We felt that if we could build technology that allows families to watch the best stories in the world, but also skips over segments that aren't consistent with their values, then we’d attract an audience and eventually be able to tell them stories better than Hollywood does. That idea struck in 2013, we started a company, and here we are — over 10 years later.

What advice would you give Generation-Z that might tap into politics instead of something deeper?

The battle is won in your own home, not in Washington, D.C. or at the UN.

We're releasing a great movie on Memorial Day called “SIGHT,” about Ming Wang. As a little boy, he’s studying, hoping to become a doctor. Then the cultural revolution began to shut down schools. People were killed, and people were incarcerated. While Ming’s formal studies were on hold, his parents taught him at home.

They kept his dream alive and taught him to be a musician. Eventually schools reopened and he had a chance to take the pre-college examinations, but he had to test out of high school with only two months of prep. And he did.

Of 2 million students in China, Ming was one of four selected to go to the U.S. to participate in the education system. His parents poured everything into him, and then he came to the U.S. Eventually he became a world-renowned eye doctor.

Ming Wang invented a technology that has restored sight for more than 2 million children. Those parents worked so carefully with their son, trying to afford the investment in his future, and they had far more impact than voting or working within their communities or governments would have.

Governments are a reflection of how children were raised 50 years ago. Our government and politics 25 or 50 years from now will be based on choices we're making today. It's always harder to play the long game, but that's what Angel Studios is about.

We started this company for our children and for their children. My recommendation to Gen Z is, even though this world seems bleak, have a family and take good care of that family. Teach them well. My parents did that, and Angel Studios exists today. Ming Wang's parents did, and 2 million children have sight. The real impact happens at home.

It’s impressive that you’ve been able to unite rather than divide — which “alternative” organizations tend to do. How have you stayed on course?

Ari, it's really hard. Social media platforms reward conflict, so it's profitable to become polarizing. Again, it's a short-term game versus a long-term investment. Angel is working very hard to be welcoming and a big tent for lots of stories.

It's really unfortunate that we live in a world where people say, “I'm environmentalist,” or “I'm anti-environmentalist.” In a more subtle world we’d say, “I want to breathe good air. I want to take care of the world around me.”

I don't want to tell people how to live their lives, but I’d like them to see what I see. Nuance isn't welcome right now. You're either on the green side, or you're not. You're pro-immigrant or anti-immigrant. There's no subtlety. And that's a reflection of social media.

Those who have the wisdom not to strive for short-term gain in their personal lives and careers will reap a slower harvest, but a greater harvest long-term. It's not easy; I see how difficult it is to get a message out profitably if you don't jump into the divisiveness.

So I feel for people who are trying to figure it out. We haven't figured it out yet. But we're trying.

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