Rebeller isn’t a commonly used word. Dallas Sonnier hopes to change that, and he hopes to revamp the way genre movies are made, marketed, and distributed in the process.
Sonnier sees Rebeller, a new brand in his rapidly expanding Dallas-based Cinestate empire, as an effort to unite fans of “outlaw cinema” — which he describes as an edgy mix of action, crime, thriller, and Western.
In other words, the latest evolution of his Dallas-based company is an independent film initiative splitting ideologically and geographically from the cinematic landscape on both coasts that might favor artsy over action.
“We’re trying to build an independent studio who does not forget that there’s a Middle America that watches movies differently than people in New York and L.A. “We think we can be the bridge for that gap,” Sonnier said. “We fit in better in Texas. It allows us to be a little more renegade and a little more cowboy.”
After launching a producing career in Hollywood a decade ago, Sonnier moved back to Dallas in 2016 and founded Cinestate, which financed such modestly budgeted genre projects as Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete, with Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson. Both have attracted a loyal following.
The Highland Park High School graduate has more recently committed to shooting Cinestate’s movies locally, during a time when tax incentives have lured other projects elsewhere. On Wednesday, he will receive the Stodghill Award — named after Preston Hollow cinephile and philanthropist Steve Stodghill — from Dallas Film for his efforts to revive the profile of the Texas film scene.
“If we can shoot in Dallas, that is a priority for us,” he said. “The city has done a great job over the last 5-10 years of having an artistic and cultural renaissance, which I’m very fond of. There’s a vibe happening right now, and we need to capitalize on that momentum.”
Building a brand
Much of Sonnier’s time these days is focused on Rebeller, which he sees as a sister brand to horror outlet Fangoria, purchased and revived by Cinestate in 2018. He hopes to use the same playbook to build an audience through web content, social media, and books in addition to original films.
Rebeller’s debut film project, Run, Hide, Fight, was filmed in Red Oak in November. The hot-button drama about a teenage girl confronting live-streaming school shooters will debut in theaters this fall.
Sonnier knows the low-budget project will attract controversy based on the concept alone, but stands by its artistic merit. In fact, it fits with the brand’s mission to value audacity and vision over sanitizing content for mainstream consumption.
“We push the boundaries to the point where it’s uncomfortable for some audiences,” Sonnier said. “We respect that, but in many cases, we have to create something that people will talk about.”
Run, Hide, Fight also will be the first foray into distribution for Cinestate. Whereas prior projects have been released to theaters and video-on-demand services simultaneously — in partnership with Lionsgate or RLJ Entertainment — self-distribution allows for a more traditional theatrical release that Sonnier said will be part of the company’s strategy going forward.
“We are committed to building Cinestate into a movie studio,” Sonnier said. “We can’t say no to the theatrical experience. We’re going to build a theatrical distribution company that is committed to opening movies in theaters only for that first window — whether we make a $500,000 low-budget slasher movie or we make a $10 million crime drama. In order to do that, we had to do it ourselves. We’ll book it ourselves and market it ourselves.”
The Rebeller website, which features a roster of regular columnists including Joe Bob Briggs, launched in December with different tiers of free and paid content.
“There’s a market for people who just want to talk about movies and aren’t super interested in figuring out what the latest weekly outrage is,” said Rebeller editor-in-chief Sonny Bunch. “I’m trying to build a site for people who love movies, want to celebrate movies, and want to explore movies. What movies do we enjoy, and think people who are like us will enjoy?”
Staying on track
Other current projects for Cinestate include VFW, a locally-made zombie thriller that Fangoria will roll out in February, and The Seventh Day, an exorcism movie starring Guy Pearce that will be shot in Dallas next month.
Cinestate also is collaborating with two Hollywood studios — producing Universal’s Jason Sudeikis thriller Till Death (shooting locally, too) and New Line’s Shut In, directed by Jason Bateman.
“Those studios recognized that what we’re doing can appeal to an audience that they’re not tapping into as much as they’d hope,” Sonnier said. “They see us as a conduit and they trust our taste.”
Such efforts don’t mean Sonnier is selling out or giving up his maverick image. Rather, he sees it as validation of his approach to success in a crowded marketplace — choosing quality screenplays, stretching production budgets, and giving his filmmakers complete creative control.
“Our goal is to build an ecosystem outside of the Hollywood gates that allows us to produce, finance, and ultimately distribute and market these movies ourselves, simply because we believe we’re the only ones who can do it to our standards,” Sonnier said. “We would love to have Amazon swoop in and take all of our movies and do all of that work for us, and make us all very wealthy, but they won’t. The stuff we make is simply too dangerous. We accept that fact, and so we have to build it ourselves.”