Pro-Trump news channel The Epoch Times enters the religious film market

In recent years, The Epoch Times has built a large following as a publisher of right-wing news articles and a peddler of unfounded election conspiracies. This summer, the conservative media company hopes to break new ground: Hollywood.

Epoch Studios, an arm of the broader Epoch Times Association, plans to release “The Firing Squad,” a drama starring Kevin Sorbo and Cuba Gooding Jr. as drug dealers 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 hits such as “Sound of Freedom,” “Unsung Hero” and “Jesus Revolution.” The film’s Aug. 2 theatrical debut comes as other right-wing media outlets are pivoting to entertainment, churning out content that pushes against what conservatives see as Hollywood’s progressive and secular agenda.

The creation of Epoch Studios has caught the attention of those who have closely followed the New York-based media company’s evolution from a fringe newspaper startup founded in 2000 by followers of Falun Gong, a religious group persecuted in China, to a prominent conservative news source with content that amplifies Donald Trump’s conspiracies and right-wing messages.

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

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

In a press release announcing “The Firing Squad,” Epoch Studios described itself as a “storytelling platform that fosters hope, healing and growth.” The studio is overseen by Executive Director Sally Sun, who has overseen Epoch documentaries and streaming specials, some with faith 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 has come on board 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 about to be executed by firing squad in Indonesia. (Right-leaning viewers may also find the film interesting because of Sorbo, a pro-Trump conservative activist who previously appeared in the Christian film “God’s Not Dead” and produces faith-based films through his own production company.)

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

Chey was in Singapore when the real-life prison saga unfolded and watched it live on cable news. He said he was struck by reports of religious fervor inside the prison walls: “They all went out singing ‘Amazing Grace’ as they went to their execution,” he recalled. “I said, I’ve got to make this film.”

A still from "The firing squad."
A still from “The Firing Squad”.Epoch Studios

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

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

The makers of “The Firing Squad” are seeking support from a broad evangelical church network to boost ticket sales.

“Sound of Freedom,” a human trafficking thriller with Christian themes, was distributed by Utah-based Angel Studios and grossed nearly $250 million worldwide on a $14.5 million budget. “Sound” was a huge sleeper hit during the summer of “Barbenheimer.”

The thriller drew hordes of conservative viewers and encouraged moviegoers to buy tickets for others as part of a “Pay it Forward” model. “The Firing Squad” uses a similar program, crowdsourcing its promotional investment. The film has reached more than $1.8 million of its $5 million online fundraising goal to “cover TV, radio, billboard and digital advertising costs.”

Celebrities backing the film 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 the film and hope to win 1 million souls for 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 messages represents a “demographic group that has often been left out of the box office equation.”

“This is good for the bottom line of cinemas and for moviegoers who are looking for entertainment that reflects their values ​​and perspective,” he said.

But whether Epoch Studios can achieve the cultural prominence and commercial reach of other conservative and Christian-oriented 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, founded by conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro and film director Jeremy Boreing, launched its own film and television studio in 2021. Fox Nation, the entertainment unit of Fox News, runs a streaming service that hosts a variety of reality shows and historical documentaries. Great American Pure Flix, a production company with a streaming service, offers Christian-themed films that have found mainstream success, including the series “God’s Not Dead.”

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

Meanwhile, Epoch Studios’ parent company is coming under scrutiny. Federal prosecutors last month announced charges against Weidong “Bill” Guan, the company’s chief financial officer, for allegedly laundering at least $67 million. The charges 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 bond. The Epoch Times has temporarily suspended Guan from his duties.

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

The Chinese government banned Falun Gong, a practice that combines the principles of Buddhism and Taoism, in 1999, considering it a cult.

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

“I didn’t meet Bill until January and I’ve had very light brushes with him. I’ve met him maybe two or three times,” Chey said. “But that said, I believe in Bill’s innocence, especially since he took on the project of a poor Christian filmmaker and defended it for no reason other than he believes strongly in freedom of religion.”

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