Indie film producer Dallas Sonnier: conservative rebel telling stories woke Hollywood won't touch
Cinestate founder's "Run Hide Fight" was snared by Ben Shapiro's The Daily Wire as the conservative website's first feature film release, part of an effort to produce content aimed at a right-of-center audience.
The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook
Veteran film producer Dallas Sonnier had an odd experience seeking a distributor for his newest film.
"Run Hide Fight," glibly called "Die Hard" in a school, follows a determined student (Isabel May) who fights back when gunmen invade the building.
The film debuted at the Venice Film Festival late last year, but several distributors declined to buy the feature.
The conversations didn't end there, though.
"I'd get a phone call, 'Dude, that movie is incredible. It's one of the best movies I've seen all year,'" Sonnier recalls. "'I so wish that we could distribute this movie, but I can't risk it. I can't risk my job. I can't even push this up the ladder with the folks upstairs.'"
The reactions didn't surprise Sonnier, whose films routinely traffic in challenging themes and R-rated mayhem. Think the grindhouse western "Bone Tomahawk" or the chilling character study "Brawl in Cell Block 99" with Vince Vaughn.
"Run Hide Fight" allows a student to fire back in a way mainstream Hollywood would never imagine. Previous school shooting movies, like "Elephant" and "Vox Lux," approached the subject with the utmost delicacy.
"Run Hide Fight" offers pulpy thrills along with sober takes on social media, school cliques and more. His team was offered potential distribution deals eventually, but he considered the terms unacceptable.
The Daily Wire gave Sonnier an offer he didn't want to refuse. He had met the site's editor emeritus Ben Shapiro, more than a year ago, and the two share "common world views on many items," Sonnier says.
Shapiro's conservative site snared "Run Hide Fight" to be its first feature film, part of an effort to produce content aimed at a right-of-center audience.
Sonnier says the deal gave him "get out alive" cash, meaning it covered the movie's production costs.
The site made "Run Hide Fight" part of its membership package, but for Sonnier the fallout proved considerable.
"This movie has been seen by more people in less than two weeks than probably any of my movies have been watched, ever, and maybe combined," he says.
The Daily Wire trailer for the film amassed north of 3 million views since going live Jan. 4. Sonnier's most recent film, the high-profile "Dragged Across Concrete" with Mel Gibson and Vaughn, racked up 3.1 million viewers over an entire year.
"It really speaks to the loyalty of the audience The Daily Wire has built up," he says.
Sonnier laments that "Run Hide Fight" may never see the inside of a movie theater thanks to the Daily Wire deal. The partnership also means some left-leaning audiences will avoid it altogether due to the Daily Wire connection.
"Run Hide Fight" currently sports a 25% "rotten" rating at RottenTomatoes.com, a movie review aggregator site. Audiences scored it far higher — 93% "fresh.""
Here's one review sample from The Playlist:
"At literally no point in this weirdly lumbering, sluggish movie's narrative does its grotesque tastelessness ever appear to have occurred to anyone involved."
This comes courtesy of IndieWire.com:
"… even if you lowered the bar down to the ninth layer of hell the company's latest and least defensible effort would still manage to slink under it."
The liberal Daily Beast gave the film a mostly positive review from its Venice debut:
"This film will easily trigger some and anger others. But overall, it ticks the boxes of a high-pulse action film that is disturbingly relevant and revealing."
The publication's tone shifted dramatically once The Daily Wire acquired it.
Sonnier, who is openly conservative, blames the critical brickbats on politically charged score keeping.
"The critics are starting to inject personal politics into their reviews in such a way that it makes their words less impactful, more preachy," he says. "It almost undermines their own credibility."
It's partly a quest for "clicks, followers and likes," he adds. "It didn't have to be this way. We didn't have to be so combative about the subject matter of movies."
Sonnier previously oversaw Cinestate, an indie studio that reflected his philosophy of low budget, star-driven films that routinely made their money back, and then some. That company included Rebeller Media, an action label and accompanying web site dedicated to outlaw-style movie commentary. He even purchased Fangoria magazine in 2018, plotting to reboot the publication and expand its brand into original horror films (like "Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich").
Then a series of accusations against industry veteran Adam Donaghey, who worked as an independent line producer on multiple Sonnier films, hit the press courtesy of The Daily Beast.
Donaghey, who has more than 40 film credits across Hollywood, was arrested on charges of sexually abusing a minor April 27 of last year. Other disturbing information about Donaghey surfaced, including audio of him sexually harassing a female colleague.
A person on the set of Sonnier's 2020 film "VFW" alleged co-star Fred Williamson groped her. The actor and veteran NFL star denied the allegations. Sonnier says he was unaware of both Donaghey's past and the "VFW" incident.
Sonnier says he's been as transparent as possible about the accusations which effectively shuttered Cinestate. His new company, Bonfire Legend, is tied to both "Run Hide Fight" and several future projects.
He still feels like the press dealt him a bad hand.
"I was never going to get a fair shake," he says. "I spent hours on the phone with [journalists] giving them the whole story only to see them write the five sentences that really fit their narrative to take me down."
Sonnier insists his movie sets remain a safe place to work, and his "handful" of critics take issue with the company's populist streak and affiliations.
Still, he saw ways to improve the new company's processes, including enhanced codes of conduct to ensure everyone feels comfortable on sets.
Sonnier says the cost of COVID-19 insurance prevents Bonfire Legend from rolling cameras at the moment, but he hopes that will end in a couple of months.
Once that happens, he's eager to restart telling stories other studios won't touch, tales that run afoul of the Twitter "morality police."
"The great divide between the cosmopolitan elite and rural America is something we'll see us tackle in our movies," he says, including "the generational wokeness happening on college campuses. We're developing a movie right now that is a really heroic journey of a police officer."
These projects, he says, will "double and triple" down on the "Run Hide Fight" spirit.
Bonfire Legend has projects simmering in both traditional and new Hollywood channels, like The Daily Wire relationship. The latter is increasingly important given the tenor of the times, he says.
"My fellow conservatives in media [have] come to the realization that we have to create our own independent spaces, our own independent avenues, because we will get cut off at the knees the more vocal we become, the more successful we become," he says. "It's an exciting opportunity for the people who see the world the way we do."
He views last year's Cinestate collapse, and the media's coverage of it, as a small part of his Hollywood story.
"When people look back on my career in 10 years, they won't remember a writer at The Daily Beast," he says. "They'll remember the movies and how good they are and the lives we've enriched."