Emily Olson

Media

Cinestate’s #MeToo Scandal and the Upheaval of the Dallas Film Scene

Four years after it breathed new life into local cinema, Dallas Sonnier's efficient horror film machine is plagued by allegations of rape, harassment, and abuse.

I met Dallas Sonnier in 2016, about a year after he’d returned to his hometown of Dallas from Los Angeles. I knew I had to write about him. Sonnier was a rare species on the city’s cultural landscape: an established film producer with a legit IMDb page listing mostly direct-to-video action flicks starring notables like Stone Cold Steve Austin, nine of whose movies he produced in four years. He said he wanted to make movies here. And he had a backstory fit for its own screenplay. Before Sonnier turned 32, both his parents had been murdered in separate, bizarre incidents. Now, at 36, he arrived like a hero from one of his action films, weary and battle tested, ready to take what he’d learned in Hollywood and use it to revive a Dallas film scene that had been struggling for years. 

Since I profiled him, Sonnier’s movie studio, Cinestate, has essentially become the Dallas film scene. It has been years since Texas has offered meaningful tax incentives to films. The fly-in Hollywood productions that once gave life (and jobs) to a Texas film community in the 1980s and ’90s had moved on to New Mexico, Louisiana, and Georgia. But Sonnier had a business model to make Dallas work. In five years, his company shot seven films in North Texas. He kept tiny budgets tight, hired local talent, and churned out grindhouse fare with cult buzz.

Cinestate’s films—Brawl in Cell Block 99, starring Vince Vaughn; Dragged Across Concrete, with Mel Gibson; Rebecca Romijn’s Satanic Panic—are not my type, but I was happy to hear that Dallas crews were getting work. And in 2018, Sonnier revived the beloved horror film magazine Fangoria, leveraging the brand to further solidify Cinestate as a player in the world of low-budget genre filmmaking. Sonnier seemed to delight in playing a defiant, populist role in the motion picture industry. “We’re in Dallas. We don’t have to play by the rules of New York or L.A.,” he told me in 2016. 

Then, earlier this year, a real kind of horror story emerged about Sonnier’s movie studio. It began in March, when a woman posted on Facebook that she had been raped four years ago by Adam Donaghey, a now 39-year-old local producer, when she was 16. Donaghey and the woman worked on the set of Dallas filmmaker David Lowery’s acclaimed film A Ghost Story. Donaghey was a known entity around Dallas. He helped produce some of Lowery’s earliest films, he worked on the renovation of the Texas Theatre, and he co-founded the Oak Cliff Film Festival. His IMDb credits show a lot of Lifetime-style movies, but he worked on every Cinestate film shot in Dallas since 2017. Although he was hired on a project basis, Donaghey was an acknowledged member of Cinestate’s core production team, which also included Sonnier and Amanda Presmyk, a 28-year-old producer who had quickly risen to become Sonnier’s right hand at the company. 

Donaghey’s subsequent arrest on a charge of sexual assault of a child exposed an open secret in the Dallas film community. Sonnier and others had for years downplayed Donaghey’s behavior. There was an audio recording of Donaghey attempting to solicit sexual favors from a crew member of a film he worked on in 2014; the recording had circulated in the local film community. And in 2017, the Texas Theatre quietly cut all ties with Donaghey after having previously barred him from the theater for having drunken altercations with women there. 

After Donaghey’s arrest, further allegations against Cinestate surfaced on social media and in the press. There were stories about sexual misconduct on multiple productions—a female star having to perform sex scenes with a friend of one of the movie’s producers who was subbed into the shoot at the last minute, a male star harassing women in the makeup trailer, an extra being groped on set. And there were allegations of dangerous conditions on Cinestate’s shoots, the most serious of which involved the production of VFW in 2019, when extras claimed they were beaten and bloodied by star actors while shooting the film’s fight scenes. 

I was beginning to talk with crew members when the Daily Beast published a story about Donaghey and Cinestate titled “How a Right-Wing Movie Studio Enabled the ‘Harvey Weinstein’ of Indie Film.” The article laid out many of the allegations I had been hearing. Cinestate’s micro-budget productions pushed crews hard and placed them in dangerous circumstances while fostering an environment perceived as permissive toward sexual misconduct. Crew members claimed that 82-year-old veteran blaxploitation actor Fred Williamson attempted to grope a costume designer and made sexual overtures to someone in hair and makeup who quit the production over the abuse. (Williamson told the Daily Beast he’d done nothing wrong.) When female crew members reported the offenses, Sonnier and Presmyk reportedly told them it would be too expensive to fire Williamson and that they should use a “buddy system” whenever they needed to interact with him. As Sonnier spoke, Donaghey hovered. 

“So, it’s like, you’re like standing in front of a sexual predator and you are telling us to use the buddy system?” Jessica Schmidt, who ran the film’s costume department, told me.

In The Hot Seat: In a 2016 D Magazine profile, a year after he’d moved back to Dallas and started Cinestate, Sonnier came across like one of the heroes from his action films.

The Daily Beast story sent Sonnier into damage control. His response to the allegations has alternated between apologetic and combative. He admits he didn’t have the training to handle the situation and is working with a team of entertainment and labor lawyers to create new policies and procedures for Cinestate’s sets. “We’re going to make our sets the safest sets in the universe,” he told me. But he has also downplayed his knowledge of Donaghey’s behavior as well as other accusations of sexual misconduct on his sets. He says no formal complaints were ever filed and that details of the accusations never made their way up through Presmyk to him, despite sources telling the Daily Beast that they had reached out to either Presmyk or Sonnier. Sonnier says he never heard the recording of Donaghey’s sexual harassment, but when he learned of the incident, he asked him to apologize and considered the matter resolved.

Sonnier says a “clique” is out to get him and Cinestate. “It’s a very small group of people who are attacking us right now and have been attacking us for years,” Sonnier says. “The less than a handful of crew members who have personal vendettas against us right now, they’re frustrated because we told them that they weren’t doing a good job or we have moved on and started working with stronger talents in those positions.”

Sonnier may be sincere in his desire to create safer sets, and he may be right that there are people who resent him for the kinds of films he makes, but his defensiveness echoes a familiar refrain in the world of independent filmmaking. When crew members complain about conditions on set, they are told they don’t have what it takes to get the job done. 

Adam Dietrich has heard it before. The writer, director, and production designer has worked in local film and theater for more than two decades, including on multiple Cinestate projects. He has no illusions about the glamour of the movie industry. Low-budget projects bring impossibly long hours, backbreaking work, low pay, and a macho culture. Unlike the more than a dozen or so crew members I spoke to, Dietrich says he enjoyed his experiences working on Cinestate movies, but the recent allegations don’t surprise him. “There’s something of truth that resonates about this abuse,” Dietrich says. “Not just with Donaghey but Cinestate.”

Before Cinestate’s arrival, there weren’t many production opportunities outside of the advertising industry. That leaves Texas crews desperate for creative employment, leading people to endure low pay and suffer difficult on-set conditions. “I didn’t experience that directly, but I’m recognizing that there are some systemic abuses in place within our industry,” Dietrich says. “Especially the independent film industry and maybe specifically in Texas. We’ve been taught that we have to either do X or find a new job.”

“Doing X” can mean lots of things on a film set. It can mean enduring some of the maltreatment Cinestate crews told me about: 27-hour shoots, working long hours for little or no pay, spoiled food that causes crew members to vomit. It can mean feeling like you have to put up with the unwelcome sexual advances of a star actor. Or it can mean staying quiet or not asking enough questions about someone like Adam Donaghey, who, in a city starved for funding, helped young filmmakers get their start and supported the reopening of an acclaimed art house theater. 

Donaghey was not the “Harvey Weinstein of Indie Film,” as the Daily Beast labeled him. Donaghey wasn’t a power broker; he was a parasite. I knew Donaghey through the Texas Theatre and from bumping into him at film festivals and screenings. About once a year, we would meet for drinks and catch up on what we were working on. Based on how he floated through the scene, I assumed he had money, but I couldn’t tell you where it came from. I didn’t know the name of his new wife, but I knew she wasn’t fond of his habit of salting his beer. After news broke of his arrest, I realized I didn’t know Donaghey as well as I thought. I had never heard any of the stories of sexual misconduct, and yet I wasn’t surprised when they surfaced. That bothered me. 

His defensiveness echoes a familiar refrain in the world of independent filmmaking. When crew members complain about conditions on set, they are told they don’t have what it takes to get the job done.

It bothered me because I had a feeling I should have known. I should have known because Donaghey’s friends and colleagues should not have allowed him to go unchecked and employed for so many years. I should have known because my intuition should have been keener. I should have known because the fact that I didn’t know was itself a reflection of the way in which this kind of misconduct and these kinds of allegations are quietly ignored, dismissed, or downplayed, churned into the stuff of gossip and left suspended in the inconsequential realm of open secrets.

But if I should have known, Dallas Sonnier should have known. After the arrest, Sonnier distanced himself from his former producer, disavowing their association in a Dallas Morning News report with a line that felt pulled from one of Cinestate’s scripts. “May God have mercy on his soul,” Sonnier said. But Sonnier can’t kill off his association with Donaghey so easily. The fact is, ignoring Donaghey’s behavior was advantageous for Cinestate. As Cinestate’s consummate line producer, Donaghey had a reputation as a budget bulldog—a Scrooge, as one crew member told me—the perfect watchdog of Sonnier’s paper-thin budgets. “Any money questions would go through Adam Donaghey,” says Brittany Ingram, a production designer who has since moved to Los Angeles. “And it’s not a mystery or anything that Adam is a total douchebag.”

This is how money operates in a city starved for cultural funding. It allows exploitative producers to squeeze crews and incentivizes turning a blind eye to the bad behavior of anyone with a shred of perceived power. Many people I interviewed for this story didn’t want to go on record. Sonnier dismisses anonymous complaints and invites anyone who has had an issue on one of his sets to approach him openly. But the fact is, people are afraid of Dallas Sonnier. They know the stakes in a small film scene in which interpersonal politics hold sway over employment. People are afraid of Sonnier just as they were afraid of Donaghey. Fear allows the environment of abuse to persist. 

The Cinestate veterans who aren’t afraid to speak come from outside the film industry. Tracy Popken was a costume fitter who worked on the set of VFW and was appalled by the conditions she found. One day, one of the film’s financiers visited the set. Popken says she confronted him. 

“I said, ‘You would make better films if you paid people a fair wage and treated them well,’ ” Popken says. “And he said, ‘That is our business model. That’s how we make money. We get people who are desperate for work in the Dallas scene, pay them as minimal as possible, and count on the shine and allure of the film industry.’ ”

It’s a great bargain—as long as you’re the one signing the checks.


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