Arts & Culture News

Cinestate Sees Serious Fallout Following Exposé on 'The Harvey Weinstein of Dallas'

Film producer Adam Donaghey was dubbed "the Harvey Weinstein of Dallas" in a recent story by The Daily Beast alleging that the heads of the Dallas film studio Cinestate were aware of Donaghey's inappropriate conduct toward actresses and crew members but did nothing about it until his arrest in April.
Film producer Adam Donaghey was dubbed "the Harvey Weinstein of Dallas" in a recent story by The Daily Beast alleging that the heads of the Dallas film studio Cinestate were aware of Donaghey's inappropriate conduct toward actresses and crew members but did nothing about it until his arrest in April. Kathy Tran
On April 27, Dallas police arrested and charged independent film producer Adam Donaghey with sexually assaulting a 16-year-old, whom he reportedly met during a film production in Dallas.

The criminal charges brought forth a wave of allegations and stories from other women in the Dallas film community accusing Donaghey's of inappropropriate behavior and of keeping dangerous and poor working conditions for film crews.

According to The Daily Beast, which published an exposé calling Donaghey "the Harvey Weinstein of Dallas," those reports eventually found their way to the heads of the Dallas film studio Cinestate (which partnered with Donaghey as a producer), including founder Dallas Sonnier and producing partner Amanda Presmyk.

Over a dozen people told the website that Sonnier and Presmyk turned "a blind eye to it," despite the fact that, some sources claim, they were offered an audio recording of Donaghey's aggressive sexual behavior toward a crew member during the making of the 2017 film Occupy Texas.

Cinestate and its various spinoff projects and productions are responding to the controversy with demands for accountability and sound safety procedures to protect its staff and film crews. The revelations even brought ultimatums and resignations from some of the film studio and publishing company's biggest names.

David Lowery, the acclaimed director who worked on A Ghost Story with both Donaghey and the alleged victim a few years after the incident, told The Dallas Morning News in May, that he was "sickened, angered and saddened by this news. It feels like a betrayal on multiple fronts: of values my partners and I hold dear, of a filmmaking community who embraced him, and most of all of a young woman who trusted him. I’m grateful to her for bringing this matter to light; she has our support, and I hope she’ll find justice.”

Marlow Stern, the senior entertainment editor for The Daily Beast, published details from interviews and confirmations from several Dallas film crew members and producers who said that they were either witnesses or victims of aggressive sexual advances from Donaghey. Cristen Leah Haynes, a first and second assistant director who worked as the art director on Occupy Texas, provided a recording to the website she made from her mobile phone in which Donaghey repeatedly tells her to show him her underwear and asks if he can penetrate her with his fingers. Haynes told the website that she shared the tape with other filmmakers and crews to warn them about his behavior even as Donaghey's stardom continued to rise in the independent film community.

Ten of those sources told The Daily Beast that they personally alerted Sonnier and Presmyk about Donaghey's inappropriate behavior including the existence of Haynes' recording, and that the company did nothing. Four of them claim Presmyk declined to even listen to the recording and one of them said, "They completely swept it under the rug."

According to the website, Sonnier and Presmyk denied ever knowing about or being informed of the existence of Haynes' audio recording or that it was ever offered to them. Sonnier told Stern that he only knew "the gist" of what happened saying, "I didn't understand the severity of it. I didn't take the time to investigate it. I'm guilty of that ... portion."

Sonnier released a statement to the Dallas Observer by email announcing that he's implementing "several measures" to prevent inappropriate behavior in their offices and on film sets. 

"We’re continuing to reel from the ongoing revelations about Adam Donaghey’s behavior and trying to digest the damage he’s caused the community." – The Texas Theatre's Barak Epstein

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“I am so proud of the company we’ve built, the movies we’ve produced and the brands we’ve saved," Sonnier wrote. "We are committed to doing the hard work to make our sets the absolute safest in the business, and we are excited to announce several measures in the coming weeks on those fronts. I am grateful for the grace that’s been shown to us by our trusted crew members as we strive to make things right.”

The story also details Donaghey's behavior toward staff members and attendees of the Texas Theatre in Oak Cliff, the movie theater he helped launch as one of the co-founders of its parent company Aviation Cinemas with Barak Epstein and Jason Reimer in 2010. Epstein told The Daily Beast that he banned Donaghey from the theater stemming from a 2013 incident in which Donaghey had "an inappropriate interaction at the Texas Theatre fueled by Adam's drinking at the bar." The story says the banishment only lasted six months and Donaghey continued to prey on staff and patrons of the theater until 2017 when Epstein officially removed him from the business legally and financially at the behest of filmmaker Blair Rowan.

"We’re continuing to reel from the ongoing revelations about Adam Donaghey’s behavior and trying to digest the damage he’s caused the community," Epstein tells the Observer by email. "To be clear, the Texas Theatre has no tolerance for harassment and/or sexual harassment of any kind and feels sickened by the pain Adam’s actions have caused others. Mr. Donaghey is not, nor has ever been, an employee or active manager of the theatre. We dissolved his partnership with the theater in 2017 and deeply regret our association with him.

"We hoped that parting ways would begin to heal these wounds, but also realize there is always more work to be done," Epstein wrote. "We have worked closely with our staff since then to reaffirm our commitment to our code of conduct and create a safe space for staff to share their feelings and concerns. Moving forward, we commit to turning this awful moment into something positive for the community we love, for filmmakers, and for our customers."

Staff and editors from other Cinestate entities like the revived horror magazine Fangoria and the film magazine Birth. Movies. Death. (BMD) that the studio acquired from the Alamo Drafthouse last May released statements demanding action be taken by Cinestate and Sonnier and Presmyk to ensure the safety of its workforce. A joint statement released by Fangoria and BMD on Monday made a hard line call for Cinestate to "roll out mandatory sexual harassment training for all of its employees" including all corporate members and make "a substantial donation" to an organization such as the Dallas Area Rape Crisis center or the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network that "must be matched with action to be truly meaningful" as "one important way to mitigate the harm that has been done."

Both publications' chief staff members signed with Fangoria's editor in chief Phil Noble Jr. and managing editor Meredith Borders; BMD's editor in chief Evan Saathoff and managing editor Scott Wampler vowed to not do any work for Cinestate until they meet these conditions.

"It is beyond past the time for corporate negligence and the protection of predators at the expense of the women they work with," the statement read.

The staff of Fangoria and BMD released a follow-up statement on Wednesday announcing their departure from the Cinestate brand. It was signed by Nobile Jr., Borders and Wampler.

The statement says that even though they are "encouraged so far by what we believe is a genuine desire to improve conditions for women on sets," they've come to the decision to leave Cinestate in the wake of the allegations made against the company's founder Dallas Sonnier and production partner Amanda Presmyk regarding the misconduct of film producer Adam Donaghey.

"Since releasing our initial statement, we have come to understand and respect that Fangoria and Birth. Movies. Death. cannot continue under the Cinestate banner," according to the statement. "It is our understanding that new buyers are being sought for both brands."

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A scene from Cinestate's Satanic Panic
Drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs, who hosts the popular horror movie showcase The Last Drive-In on the streaming channel Shudder, also announced on his Twitter page that he would no longer write his regular columns for Cinestate publications and websites including Fangoria and Rebeller, the online film website that chronicles "outlaw cinema," after the allegations made against his now-former employer. 

"Based on the revelations at Cinestate and their failure to come clean about everything and make it right, I guess I have to resign from both Fangoria and Rebeller," Briggs wrote on Twitter. "Sad on several levels, including the end of Fango's miracle comeback and the decline of a TX-based film company."

Brittany Ingram, a filmmaker who worked as a production designer on Cinestate’s Puppet Master in 2017, says she was “excited to revive a childhood cult favorite” but that her time working with the company was nothing short of a nightmare.

“My experience working with Cinestate was far from ideal, in fact it was rather dangerous,” she says, explaining that the days on set averaged around 15-16 hours and the production was “under-crewed.”

“The biggest qualm I had with the shoot was how unsafe working conditions were,” Ingram says. She describes the location, the abandoned hotel The Ambassador,  as “riddled with decaying asbestos and mold.” Ingram says she alerted Cinestate of the unsafe working conditions, including the actions of the hotel’s handyman, who Ingram says was persistently intoxicated and had made inappropriate comments toward her and verbally assaulted a young black PA with a series of threats and racial slurs. Ingram says that Presmyk instructed her to not be alone in the hotel, but, she says, Cinestate took no safety measures and they were denied extra crew.

Ingram also says that Cinestate asked her to construct a set that posed a serious threat to the actors.

“Dallas forced my team to build a set for a stunt car crash that we were not comfortable building,” she says of Sonnier. “Especially in smaller markets like Texas, producers all too often expect you to make a Van Gogh out of a few crayons.”

Ingram says that after her research, she presented production with a plan to use wooden flats for the set but that Sonnier demanded she create a cinder block wall instead. “'I want it to look real,'” she says he responded.

“Both my art director and myself were astonished at his response, as it felt incredibly dangerous,” Ingram continues. “I was young and naive, so I followed the command and made my team push forward. We asked to hire a construction coordinator to help us since we had no experience working with cinder blocks and were concerned for the safety of the stunt. The request was denied by Adam, and instead Amanda brought in her father to help for free.”

Ingram says that while Presmyk’s father was “mechanically inclined” he was "not well versed in set construction for stunts" and that she designed the entire set herself.

This past April, Presmyk tweeted a photo of Ingram's set design, praising her father, who “designed and built the entire mausoleum with the art department.”

When Ingram found the old tweet, she shared it in a Facebook post on Tuesday, where she tagged Presmyk.

“I designed that mausoleum. I worked 27 hours straight bc your production refused to hire a construction coordinator and extra help on the last day of production. Fuck you, you rapist-supporting, woman-hating C—T.”

Presmyk did not respond to our request for comment.
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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.
Eva Raggio is the Dallas Observer's music and arts editor, a job she took after several years of writing about local culture and music for the paper. Eva supports the arts by rarely asking to be put on "the list" and always replies to emails, unless the word "pimp" makes up part of the artist's name.
Contact: Eva Raggio