A one-night theatrical release: The true story of a former special agent rescuing young girls from human traffickers

Filmmakers Chet Thomas and Darrin Fletcher spent two years documenting a former U.S. special agent's efforts to rescue young girls from human traffickers around the world. Now they're hoping their new movie can shed light on the international horrors of sex slavery.

The duo's documentary, about the undercover anti-trafficking missions of former Department of Homeland Security worker Tim Ballard, will be released in nearly 500 theaters Monday night for a one-night engagement. Those theaters include downtown's Regal L.A. Live and AMC Burbank 16. 

The movie follows Ballard and his nonprofit organization Operation Underground Railroad on sting missions in Colombia, Haiti and Honduras that they say  rescued 57 young girls and put seven human traffickers behind bars. The group says its efforts have freed more than 500 girls in countries including Peru and Thailand. 

"Our main focus right now is raising awareness for this problem," said Thomas, an Ojai-based filmmaker who once worked at the DreamWorks live-action film studio. "We've made it in such a way that we promise you will come out of this film inspired, and not feel like you've been drug through the mud."

“The Abolitionists” will play in 482 theaters in the U.S. on Monday only, the latest example of  “event” screenings that have become increasingly popular at cinemas nationwide. The screenings are programmed by Fathom Events, a Denver-based company that specializes in exhibiting alternative programming at major theater chains.

Fathom’s special screenings, which range from opera performances to sporting events and documentaries, are marketed to niche audiences. For “The Abolitionists,” for example, Fathom’s marketing teams reached out to faith-based organizations such as church groups and ministries to help raise awareness about the event.

“We felt this was an important story that needed to be told,” said Kymberli Frueh, events vice president of programming for Fathom. “Many people think that human trafficking isn’t in the U.S., but it is one of the fastest growing crimes in our country. We hope that by bringing ‘The Abolitionists’ to movie theaters we can drive the kind of awareness that can save lives.”   

Faith-based communities have shown up to support other inspirational documentaries this year, including “The Pastor,” about the Latino Christian community in the U.S., and “Laughing in the Dark,” about Christian comedian Chonda Pierce.

Such screenings are attractive to theater owners because they draw crowds during periods when cinemas are usually empty, such as on Monday nights. High vacancy rates are a major challenge for theaters, especially as they face growing competition from entertainment options in the home.

Last year, Fathom sold 3.6 million ticket for 115 events, up from 2.5 million tickets for 100 events in 2014, said Jessica Nelson, spokeswoman for the company.

“Our goal is to fill theaters during off-peak times so that’s going to be week night or during the day on weekends, so it’s a win-win situation for theaters and content partners,” she said.

The limited-release strategy allows the filmmakers to concentrate on grass-roots tactics to get the word out. Thomas and Fletcher's production company, FletChet Entertainment, won the endorsement of churches and pastors for their film, and assigned individuals in certain cities to promote it locally. FletChet and Fathom encouraged churches and other groups to rent out whole theaters and buy tickets in bulk. 

The filmmakers first met Ballard when they recruited him as a history consultant for a different project. After they heard Ballard's stories about doing rescue work for the U.S. government, they knew they'd found the subject of their next movie. 

It took several attempts to find the right tone for the film, which Thomas wanted to be inspirational and appropriate for a churchgoing crowd. An early version was so grim that people at screenings walked out of the theater. The next cut overcompensated and ended up giving viewers the mistaken impression that the problem was being fixed.

"This is a terrible, tough topic, but it was our goal to make it in such a way that everyone can see the film," said Thomas, who said he hopes his movie follows in the footsteps of Harriet Beecher Stowe's influential pre-Civil War novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The movie is rated PG-13. 

Thomas said he hoped the one-time engagement is successful enough to merit additional screenings of the independently produced and distributed film.

His goal, he said, is to land a deal for a TV show that will show Ballard's additional efforts. His organization has done work in about 20 countries. He says his team has enough footage for 25 episodes. 

Gerald Molen, producer of "Schindler's List" and "Minority Report," was an executive producer on the documentary.

The film shines a light on Operation Underground Railroad, part of a growing landscape of "raid and rescue" organizations that use video footage to help local police bust traffickers. The groups, many of which are faith-based nonprofits, include the Exodus Road, which has worked with retired Chicago White Sox player Adam LaRoche, above. 

According to a recent Chicago Tribune article, critics have raised concerns about the methods the groups use and whether they do enough follow-up to be effective in the long run. However, none question the groups' intentions -- or the scale of the problem. 

According to the International Labor Organization, nearly 21 million people are subjected to human trafficking, and 4.5 million of those are involved in sex work.

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'Gutsiness right from the get-go': Documentary shines light on artist Eva Hesse

Follow Ryan Faughnder on Twitter for more entertainment business coverage: @rfaughnder

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