Arts & Culture News

Cinestate's Star Continues to Rise Amid Major Staff Shakeups

Dallas Sonnier holds a corpse prop from Puppet Master. Tate Steinsiek, who worked on The Amazing Spider-Man, designed it.
Dallas Sonnier holds a corpse prop from Puppet Master. Tate Steinsiek, who worked on The Amazing Spider-Man, designed it. Kathy Tran
Cinestate's Brawl in Cell Block 99 premiered in an interesting setting for a gritty, grindhouse-style action flick starring Vince Vaughn. The arthouse moviegoing crowds of the Venice Film Festival became the first public audience to see director S. Craig Zahler's prison action thriller.

"We premiered it at the Venice Film Festival, one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world, and we got a nice standing ovation," Cinestate founder Dallas Sonnier says. "Basically, we premiered a grindhouse movie at one of the fanciest festivals in the world and we got that reaction, which was terrific."

The success of the Venice Film Festival premiere set the stage for Cinestate's rise, but Sonnier and Zahler didn't have much time to enjoy the city's sights. They had to hop a plane to Vancouver, where their next crime thriller, Dragged Across Concrete, starring Vaughn and Mel Gibson, was being filmed.

"The craziest thing about it was we had to fly all the way to Venice and back in one weekend because we were still shooting Dragged Across Concrete at the time," Sonnier says with a laugh. "We all got on a plane — me, Vince and Zahler — and flew however many hours it was across the country and we were only in Venice for, I think, 19 hours."

2017 has been a banner year for Sonnier's entertainment company. In addition to filming Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich and Dragged Across Concrete and releasing Brawl in Cell Block 99, Cinestate put out its first book, Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child, written by Zahler.

There were also some major changes to the company's staff. According to LinkedIn, former creative director Abbie Kopf left in July, and Will Evans, Cinestate's co-founder and the former head of the book division, left in October. Kopf did not respond to the Observer's requests for comment.

“I adore Will Evans and really enjoyed our time together," Sonnier says. "While we tried really hard to build Cinestate together, I think it’s now clear to both of us that he was never meant to leave [Deep Vellum Publishing] and that his taste and interests are a perfect fit for that brand. Cinestate in so many ways is really an extension of me personally, and that is the direction I’m taking the company with this new investment and new acquisition and new hires.”

"All is good with the split from Cinestate, love them, and love Dallas," Evans says.

Those new deals include two new movies: a coming-of-age sci-fi movie to be filmed in the spring in the Pacific Northwest and a movie that will film in Dallas in February that Sonnier describes as "in the vein of The Usual Suspects and Glengarry Glen Ross." Cinestate also plans to release Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich next year and start turning Zahler's Hug Chickenpenny book into a movie starring Vaughn and another big name that Sonnier isn't ready to reveal. 

"I was accidentally about to say something I couldn't say out loud," Sonnier says with a laugh. "Let's put it this way. We've attached one of the biggest brands in Hollywood to the movie version of Hug, which we're going to prep for the end of the next year."

Having a heavy hitter like Vaughn helps build the brand, especially in the casting process. Sonnier says Vaughn was instrumental in getting Gibson on board for Dragged Across Concrete, a crime thriller about two cops fired for police brutality who turn to the criminal underworld for money and revenge. Lionsgate will distribute the film in American theaters next year.

"When we were in production on Brawl, Vince had a good sense that we were making a great film and that we were a good team," Sonnier says. "So he came to me and Zahler and said, 'Guys, I'd love to do another one with you right away. What can we do?' Zahler and I gave him the script for Dragged, and he read it and said, 'I just did Hacksaw Ridge with Mel Gibson. Let's bring this to him.' So Vince helped us approach Mel and put in a great word for Zahler, and a few weeks later, Mel Gibson was attached to the movie along with Vince."

Sonnier says he wasn't concerned about negative public reaction when he cast Gibson, whose on-screen film career was recently bolstered by Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg's comedy Daddy's Home 2.

"I have never been one to shy away from challenging material ever in my producing career, and I think along with that, I've never been afraid of perception or the way that an audience may perceive me or the movie that I work on or things like that," Sonnier says. "I think we try and focus on working with filmmakers, actors and partners whose work we enjoy and whose work we admire, and we don't sit there and worry too much about what someone's going to think of us. We pick the right people for the job based on merit and based on the right fit and based on who's going to be the right partner for us."

Sonnier says Gibson was the right fit for the role, in part because of his chemistry with Vaughn.

"Vince and Mel are friends in real life, and their camaraderie shows up on the screen, and in the hands of Zahler's direction and given Zahler's amazing dialogue, they're able to shine," he says. "It doesn't matter that the subject material is controversial or someone associated with the movie may be controversial. What matters is is the movie good."

"It doesn't matter that the subject material is controversial or someone associated with the movie may be controversial. What matters is is the movie good." – Cinestate founder Dallas Sonnier

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Sonnier's relationship with Zahler, which began with Bone Tomahawk, has grown stronger with each new project. Zahler and the critical success of Brawl are helping Cinestate to secure bigger investments. Sonnier won't divulge the budget for Dragged Across Concrete but says, "Without a studio involved, you would max out at around 20 [million] to 30 million.

"Every time we've worked with Zahler, the budgets have gone up, which is good," Sonnier says. "We aspire to make bigger movies and things like that. The budget on Dragged Across Concrete was substantially more than the budget on Brawl, and it gives us now the experience of making a movie on a bigger budget. It opens doors for us, and it gives us an experience level to make movies at a different price point."

Sonnier's goal has always been for Cinestate to stay out of the mainstream movie machine and become a film powerhouse.

"The first thing is that we raised a significant investment, so we have a new financing partner in the company, which we'll announce at some point in time, but the point is that we raised a significant amount of money," he says. "The second thing is we've acquired another entertainment company, which we are absorbing right now. It's a big one, and when the time comes that we can talk about it, I think it's going to be a significant piece of news."

Even with bigger budgets, Sonnier says the goal is to keep Cinestate independent no matter the project.

"The vision is very similar," he says. "We want to make movies. We want to publish books. We want to create these audio programs based on creators who we want to support and who we believe can have a little more autonomy within our model and we can provide a place to get challenging subject material turned into a movie or a book, whatever it might be. Now we just have the additional resources financially to do so, and through the acquisition of this other company, we are going to have a much wider reach in terms of audience."
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.