Will Cinestate Pave the Road for a Film Industry in Dallas?

Book publisher Will Evans and Hollywood film producer Dallas Sonnier are building Dallas' first major movie studio.EXPAND
Book publisher Will Evans and Hollywood film producer Dallas Sonnier are building Dallas' first major movie studio.
courtesy Cinestate

When book publisher Will Evans agreed to meet Hollywood film producer Dallas Sonnier at Drugstore Cowboy for coffee, he assumed he'd be the one doing the selling. The meeting had come about because Evans was looking for investors for his bookstore, and Sonnier, who grew up in Highland Park, had heard about Deep Vellum Books from friends who knew he was looking to invest in a creative venture in his hometown.

But as one meeting turned to three, and the conversation veered to other topics — British radio dramas, movies — it became clear that the tables were turned. More so than the bookstore, Sonnier was interested in Evans, his ability to navigate the artistic and the financial worlds with equal ease, his international connections and, most important, his eye for writers with "singular vision."

Singular vision is a term Sonnier is obsessed with; he uses it to refer to artists who have unique ideas and a clear concept of how they should be executed. It's what attracted him to S. Craig Zahler, the writer and director of Bone Tomahawk — a 2015 horror western starring Kurt Russell — with whom Sonnier has had a proprietary relationship for several years.

Zahler is so prolific that Sonnier was struck with the idea of creating a company around him that would understand how to cultivate talent in a way that major film studios and publishers often don't. "What you don't want is book by committee or screenplay by committee, because that’s when people who don't know what they’re doing get involved and muck it up," says Sonnier. "We want to be a place where a really talented original voice can come in and feel supported, 'cause otherwise why are we publishing them? Why are we producing their movie?"

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When he met Evans, Sonnier sensed immediately that he was just the guy to help create this kind of company. "I realized about three minutes in that what I really wanted to do was convince [Evans] to partner up in a new entertainment company," Sonnier says. "I basically spent the rest of the first meeting asking him a bunch of really intense questions and I think he kind of picked up on the fact right away that I was thinking of something else."

At the end of the third meeting, Sonnier laid a check down on the table and told Evans he was welcome to cash it if he wasn't interested in the new company he had to propose. But Evans never did cash that check. "He looked at me and he basically pitched back to me a slightly better version of the company," Sonnier says. Now they've announced Cinestate, which will not only be the first movie studio in Dallas, it will be the first movie studio of its kind anywhere.

Whenever Cinestate buys the rights to a movie or a book, it will be with the intention of creating the other, as well as an audiobook and a new product they are calling an "audiostate." Beyond a straightforward audiobook, an audiostate will be more like a radio drama featuring performances by actors and an original score. It may also be an entirely different story — a sequel, prequel or spin-off of the original work.

"We think it's crazy that book publishers and filmmakers have never really teamed up before," says Evans, who spoke to the Observer as he was on his way to present Cinestate and hopefully find collaborators at the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany, the biggest media fair in the world. "We're going to make the company a really international brand from the start. We want to be in New York, LA, London, Shanghai and Dubai."

Deep Vellum exclusively published works in translation so Evans has lots of experience working internationally, which will be valuable to Cinestate, since the company will be interested in creating the English-language versions of books and movies that have been successful elsewhere. Evans holds up the Japanese horror novel and film The Ring, which became a big hit here a decade later, as an example of the kind of deal they'd be interested in striking.

But while Cinestate will draw on the skills Evans has acquired in his years building up Deep Vellum, it's also a departure in many ways. "Cinestate allows me to expand the universe ... in terms of available books we can go after," Evans says. "We're not just going to be going after foreign, super mega literary titles [like I did with Deep Vellum]."

Now when he goes to book fairs, he'll be able to look at the whole catalog. "The first five pages are the ones that Deep Vellum would sign," he says. "They’re the books that win major awards. And then the other 95 pages are Cinestate books, where it’s like, 'Oh my God, this is the scariest book ever written,' or, 'Oh my God, here’s the craziest psychological thriller from Russia today,' and we’re able to consider those 'cause they fit into our adaptation model." English-language works will now also be on the table for Evans, and he and Sonnier have plans to work closely with many Texas- and Dallas-based authors.

Sonnier says that like any buzzy new company, Cinestate has been flooded with submissions since announcing their arrival onto the scene this fall. Now their task is to identify the right people to work with out of the gate. One of those people will likely be Larry Clark, the director who made Kids and Bully. Cinestate is in the final stages of negotiations for him to direct one of their films. "Larry Clark is about as fancy as it gets," says Sonnier.

When Sonnier was a student at Highland Park High School, the idea of a film studio in Dallas that worked with artists of Clark's caliber seemed unlikely at best. Intent on pursuing his dreams of working in the film industry, he did what all Dallasites with those aspirations have done until now: He moved to Los Angeles, where he attended USC film school. Sonnier says he still encourages young people to spend some time in LA and New York learning the trade and networking, but he hopes that once Cinestate gets off the ground, there will be more opportunities for filmmakers who want to build their lives in Texas.

"I’ve received about five or six emails in the last 24 hours from people who grew up in Dallas and their mom sent them the article this weekend about our company and they want to know if we’re hiring and if they can come home," he says. "There's definitely going to be an opportunity for people who want to work in the movie business or in book publishing or entertainment in general to be able to grow here with us and with other companies here in Dallas who are emerging, and skip New York and LA."

Evans started the first publishing house in Dallas and now Cinestate will be the first studio. Why has no one embarked on these missions before? Sonnier says it's not a lack of interest or ability, citing filmmakers David Lowery (Pete's Dragon) and Shane Caruth (Upstream Color, Primer) as examples of astounding local talent. No, he says it's a sharp divide between the artistic community and the financial sector that is to blame.

"Dallas is a bifurcated city when it comes to the art world and the business world ... there’s all these phenomenal artists, terrific art galleries, but [the artists are] not in daily conversations with the other side of Dallas, which has access to so much financing and really understands the concept of how to make money," he says. "We’re hoping to bridge that gap a little bit. Will and I can organically exist in both subsets."

Cinestate will call two buildings at Swiss and Haskell avenues home. Sonnier purchased them and they're in the process of being renovated and fitted out for the new company. Evans admits he was surprised when he first asked Sonnier where he had bought. "I was gonna be like, 'Oh God, where in North Dallas or Highland Park is it? [For me, the fact that he chose Swiss Avenue] is really a sign of his character in a deep way and what kind of vision he has."

Sonnier says they both find meaning in trudging a new path on Swiss Avenue, which was itself the first paved road in Dallas: "There's a nice metaphor there for us."


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