Finding Purpose: Kingdom Story Company Producer Kevin Downes on ORDINARY ANGELS

Courtesy of Kingdom Story Company

The Kingdom Story Company is dedicated to providing moviegoers with stories that inspire and entertain. Founded in 2019 by filmmakers Kevin Downes, Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin, and Tony Young, the company’s theatrical releases to date include I Still Believe, American Underdog, and Johnny Cash: The Redemption of an American Icon. Last February’s Jesus Revolution, also a Kingdom Story Company Release, not only generated positive word-of-mouth but garnered a strong domestic box office performance in excess of $52 million. The company’s focus on grassroots marketing to faith-focused audiences, combined with a first-look partnership at distributor Lionsgate, have helped forge a brand known for bringing hope and inspiration to the big screen.

Based on an extraordinary true story, Ordinary Angels centers on Sharon (Hilary Swank), a fierce, small-town Kentucky hairdresser who finds a renewed sense of purpose in helping move mountains for a little girl awaiting a liver transplant. Filmmaker and Kingdom Story Company co-founder Kevin Downes spoke with Boxoffice Pro about producing the release—and how Taylor Swift’s concert film became a blessing in disguise.   

What are the origins of the Kingdom Story Company? How did it all begin?

Kingdom Story Company was formed by four partners—Jon and Andrew Erwin, Tony Young, and myself—on the heels of the success of a movie that we all produced together called I Can Only Imagine, which came out five years ago now. It did really great, and Lionsgate offered us a first-look deal. We formed Kingdom Story Company to house and facilitate that deal. Since then, obviously, none of us predicted a pandemic would happen, but we still remained incredibly busy and produced a number of films during that time. Our 2024 [slate] is certainly robust; we’ve got a lot coming. It’s really great to see, first of all, that audiences really want the content that we’re a part of. Jesus Revolution doing over $50 million back in February was incredible. We’re just trying to ride that momentum into the next project. It’s not just our content—certainly [Angel Studios’] Sound of Freedom is another [film in what] I call the “faith light” [genre]— but the audience is very similar. Doing the number that it did, over $180 million, is just extraordinary. What that provides is the opportunity for us to continue to tell great stories. 

Our focus is on true stories or big IPs that showcase the power of what the gospel of Jesus Christ can do in people’s lives. You see that in American Underdog, I Still Believe, [and] obviously Jesus Revolution is a bullseye example of that. The goal of our movies is to provide a rush of hope into people’s lives; especially coming out of the pandemic where people were depressed and wondering if this was what the rest of their life was going to be like. The goal of the movies that we want to make really hit home, in my opinion, and it was really needed. It’s encouraging to read the stories, whether emails or people that send in letters. That’s why we make them. Seeing spirits uplifted by the films that we make makes it all worth it.

We talk a lot at Boxoffice about the importance of a shared theatrical experience. All of your films really lend themselves to that environment. Why is a theatrical release important, and how have you seen audiences impacted by coming together to watch your films?

When you see a movie in theaters, it’s typically a community experience. Who doesn’t love seeing a film with a full house and a big audience? You’re a part of the laughter or you’re part of the emotional experience that film is providing in that moment. Our films have that emotional drive that people really love and dig. At Kingdom Story Company we’re all in on making theatrical movies for a theatrical audience. And, in today’s climate, making them event films. Jesus Revolution, in our mind, was something that we could present as an event to our audience. We’re continuing to look for more films like that, that provide that eventized structure to tell their stories. 

You mentioned your partnership with Lionsgate. What has that collaboration been like?

It’s been great. We have a first look deal there, and we pitch them stories. Actually, Ordinary Angels was a story they pitched us, which we fell in love with. ​We actually knew some of the players that the story is based on in Louisville, Kentucky and the church that’s a part of it. We fell in love with the story itself, because it literally uplifts the human spirit. There are a lot of parables in the film—the faith [component] isn’t necessarily “on the nose”—but the true story experience is something that’s undeniable. It’s the story of a person who sacrifices what she wants in her life to be able to save the life of another human being. How that manifested and played itself out is something that’s really inspiring. It’s the highest tested film that we’ve ever made. 

Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour was announced with an October 13th opening weekend, the same date Ordinary Angels was originally slated to open. The SAG-AFTRA strike was also in full effect. How did each of those events impact your release strategy? 

Obviously Taylor Swift was a nice, logical reason [to move the film], but part of the reason why we wanted to move it to February was because Hilary loves, loves, loves the film. She’s really passionate about getting out in front of it and telling people why the film means so much to her from a personal standpoint. We wanted to do that to honor her. 

When did Hilary get involved, and what was your collaboration like?

Once Lionsgate greenlit the picture, we started casting and we sent her a letter. We were familiar with her story with her dad and the organ transplant journey that she went on with him. This story is heavily about organ transplant, and we just pitched that this might be something that she’d be interested in, and she really did connect [with the script] on that level. She’s a wonderful, wonderful person to work with. I would work with her again in a heartbeat. She’s just got a sweet spirit about her. We’re happy for her, because she’s a mom now, and that’s really cool. I can’t wait for audiences to see her in this film, because she gives a really great performance.

Jon Gunn has been a frequent collaborator, having written and produced I Still Believe, American Underdog, and Jesus Revolution, but this is the first time he’s stepping into a director role with Kingdom Story Company. What has that been like having Jon in the director’s chair for Ordinary Angels?

It’s the first time that he’s directed for Kingdom Story Company, but he and I actually go back almost 30 years. The first movie he ever directed was a movie that I produced for him. It was my second movie, all the way back in 1998. Then we did another movie together about 10 years later, which was another great experience. We joke that every 10 years we’re gonna do a movie together. Hopefully it’s not quite that long next time. He’s a very gifted storyteller. He’s able to visualize a story before it’s actually put together in front of him. To watch him work on set, if you’ve seen A Beautiful Mind, he’s able to move the pieces around and understands how the story needs to evolve as he’s crafting it. His stories are always very cathartic and very emotional. This one is no different, he definitely delivered.

As a producer, what inspires you about storytelling?

What inspires me the most is when audiences are moved, whether it’s to tears, or to laughter, or it just invokes a certain emotion. If I can have a different perspective on life after two hours of sitting in a dark movie theater, I come out of it changed or a little bit different. As a moviegoer, my favorite films are inspirational sports stories. I’m a sports nut, which is why I’ve made a couple of sports movies, because I love them so much.

I can remember when The Rookie came out. To this day, it’s the only film that when the credits rolled, I stuck around and watched it again in back-to-back showings. I didn’t want to let those characters go. I wanted to live through it one more time, because of the hope and because it was just so good. I didn’t know I’d work with Dennis Quaid multiple times years later. That was a lot of fun. I told him that story, that The Rookie inspired me to make movies and tell stories that really move the human spirit. He was very thankful for that.

Your next film shares a kindred title with Ordinary Angels. What can you share about Unsung Hero, which is the story behind Christian pop duo For King & Country’s song of the same name?

What an incredible story and journey. Joel Smallbone had the bravery to go and tell his family’s story, not only as a director, but as an actor. He’s playing his own dad. He does such an extraordinary job. I went into it wondering if they could pull it off and decided to see it with a couple of audiences in early cuts. My mind was absolutely blown. First of all, they’ve got a lot of talent, but secondly, audiences love this movie and they’re going to love this movie when we release it wide. We’re doing what we can to be able to help and serve this movie, because it absolutely deserves it. He’s such a talent. He’s such a gift. To be able to be a part of it and come on as an executive producer was really an honor, just to see audiences come out of it, and how they’re moved.

My partner Andy Erwin was involved from day one, so it’s got the Kingdom Story Company’s footprints and fingerprints all over it. I’m really proud of Joel. I can’t wait to see what he does next, because it’s really hard to do what he pulled off. Especially coming from one of the most successful contemporary Christian music acts and all of a sudden turning that hat around to say, “I’m a movie director.” I don’t know anybody that’s ever done that before at the level that he just pulled off. I can’t wait for people to see it.

In the past you’ve talked about how one project leads to the next. How does that snowball marketing effect continue with Ordinary Angels and beyond?

I give the example of I Can Only Imagine; the success of that film allowed Jesus Revolution to get made. The success of that one is allowing Ordinary Angels to be released in the way that it’s being released and will allow other stories that we are so excited to tell get made. A lot of people don’t understand how the movie theater system works. Anytime you go and buy a ticket, you’re really casting a vote. You’re casting a vote that this is the type of movie that you’d like to see, whether that’s horror, whether it’s Marvel.

For people out there that like the types of films that we make, I encourage them to go out and buy a ticket and cast their vote. Enjoy the movie, enjoy the experience, and if you did enjoy it, tell some people about it while it’s there in theaters. Sound of Freedom did it so well, because their whole “pay it forward” thing is on the nose, which is what it’s about. If you enjoy this film, then tell people about it while it’s still in theaters, because it does make a difference. More movies like this can get made.

Courtesy of Kingdom Story Company
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