Jonathan Zizzo for The Wall Street Journal
Before he casts actors in his movies, producer
puts them through what he calls “the Louisiana cousins test.”
These cousins of his are schoolteachers, HVAC installers, construction workers—just the kind of audience he thinks Hollywood has unwisely left behind.
“If I text them the name of, let’s say,
? They go f—ing crazy!”
His October release, “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” passed the test. Mr. Vaughn portrayed an out-of-work mechanic who killed Mexican drug dealers to protect his wife from a forced abortion. It had a tiny theatrical release with little media coverage, but its DVDs were a hit at
as soon as they hit the shelves.
Mr. Sonnier’s company,
which made “Brawl,” is backed by an anonymous Texas oil heiress, he says, to produce “populist entertainment.”
JONATHAN ZIZZO for The Wall Street Journal
The 38-year-old former talent manager, who got his start working with actor and director
, now finds himself navigating culture, commerce and politics in trying to answer a question facing Hollywood: Where does entertainment go in the Trump era?
The industry has responded to that question largely by using platforms such as the Academy Awards to rail against the Trump administration. That has alienated many moviegoers, and today those are the people Mr. Sonnier has in mind.
“If we can make a movie that does not treat them as losers, or ask how dare they vote a certain way, or pander to them, naturally they’re going to respond in a positive way,” says Mr. Sonnier, who says he wrote in a candidate for the 2016 presidential election because he didn’t support
following the “Access Hollywood” tape’s release.
Since fleeing Los Angeles in 2015 for Texas, where he grew up, Mr. Sonnier has cast himself as the producer willing to do features that others in Hollywood consider politically radioactive. In the past year, he has wrapped production on “Dragged Across Concrete,” starring
as a cop accused of beating a suspect, filmed a drama about militia members, and bought a script about a school shooting in which a female student wrests control of a gun and fights back.
Mr. Sonnier’s revenues from a film are a tiny fraction of those from a major studio release, but he is making money off his strategy by keeping production costs low and relying on word-of-mouth to turn his movies into sleeper hits. With a budget of $3.8 million, “Brawl” has turned a profit, says Mr. Sonnier. He says Cinestate did it by selling distribution rights to overseas markets on the strength of Mr. Vaughn’s “Wedding Crashers” fame, pocketing nearly $2 million for streaming rights from one online service and selling more than 40,000 DVDs in the first two weeks of release at big-box stores—a healthy performance in an age when few buy DVDs anymore.
Hollywood has occasionally targeted conservative moviegoers, releasing faith-based movies in specific neighborhoods or producing patriotic blockbusters such as “American Sniper.” The difference is that Mr. Sonnier is betting a whole company on a strategy of finding consumers he says are “outside the coasts,” marrying ideology with opportunism.
“The political climate brings a spotlight to these kinds of movies. We’re not shying away from that,” Mr. Sonnier says. “It’s funny that, in this moment in time, the movies we’re making are almost counterculture.”
Other studios don’t appear to be mimicking his approach, but some recent Hollywood moves seem to affirm Mr. Sonnier’s conviction that he’s tapping an underserved audience. The revival of the “Roseanne” TV series, starring the comedian Roseanne Barr as a Trump voter navigating various social issues, was part of a strategy at ABC discussed by executives at a meeting held the day after the election about how to entertain a broader swath of the nation.
The premiere episode’s top market was Tulsa, Okla., according to ABC, where it outperformed the national average by 60%.
television group said it was reviving “Last Man Standing,” a comedy starring Tim Allen as a conservative sporting-goods store employee.
The writer and director behind “Brawl in Cell Block 99” and “Dragged Across Concrete,”
S. Craig Zahler,
says he sold nearly 20 unproduced scripts to major studios—including five sitting on a shelf at
Warner Bros.—before Mr. Sonnier came along. “He was willing to take the gamble,” says Mr. Zahler. “Someone who’s going to take the shotgun and blast it in all directions.”
Cinestate recently bought the horror-fan magazine Fangoria and is producing movies under its name, including “Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich,” a tongue-in-cheek gorefest due out in August about Nazi puppets who murder minorities. Mr. Sonnier says “95% of audiences get it; 5% say ‘How dare you.’ Both reactions are so fun to me.”
JONATHAN ZIZZO for The Wall Street Journal
After a Dallas screening of “The Littlest Reich,” he was in line at the afterparty bar. A woman saw him and turned away, he says, telling him she didn’t want to meet the man behind the movie. “That’s so great,” he says.
Mr. Sonnier is learning there’s fallout from such scripts. His current production, originally titled “Militia,” had two prominent actors on board, he says. The movie follows militiamen who suspect one of their own is responsible for a shooting at a police funeral.
Then the massacre at a Las Vegas music festival in October reignited a debate over gun control. The actors dropped out. Nearly a dozen more said they wouldn’t touch it, Mr. Sonnier says. “We couldn’t cast it to save our lives.”
He changed the title to “The Incident at Sparrow Creek Lumber.” Character actors rounded out the cast. “The title change helped get people in the room,” he says. “That’s not to say we’re not going to call it ‘Militia’ when we release it.”
The movie’s writer and director,
says he thought it would be axed after Mr. Trump won the presidential election and real-life militias made the news, notably at rallies in Charlottesville, Va. His project was met with skepticism by studio executives. “People would look at me and say, ‘You knew this was going to happen.’ If I’d known, I would have warned someone, not written a script,” Mr. Dunham says.
Producers dropped out after the election. Mr. Sonnier came aboard.
On the “Sparrow Creek” set, surrounded by prop AR-15 rifles, Mr. Sonnier wears his unofficial uniform of an untucked Brooks Brothers button-down shirt, bluejeans and shoes alternating between work boots and Sperry boat shoes. He is over 6 feet tall with close-cut blond hair, a round face and horn-rim glasses that make him look like a cross between
and Ralphie from the 1983 film “A Christmas Story.”
“Sparrow Creek,” filmed in under three weeks for less than $1 million, Mr. Sonnier says, is part of a microbudget strategy he has used to profitable effect on previous movies “Brawl” and his 2015 Western, “Bone Tomahawk.”
When “Brawl” appeared on iTunes, the prison revenge movie shot to the top 10. The other titles in the iTunes top 10 at the time, “Spider Man: Homecoming” and “Wonder Woman” among them, had wide theatrical releases.
“His movies perform everywhere,” says
chief acquisitions officer at RLJ Entertainment Inc., which distributes Cinestate’s movies, “from Walmart to iTunes.”
Cinestate uses a small theatrical release to boost a title’s credibility, which helps secure prime shelf space at Walmart. His microbudgets have made him appealing to film financiers such as
who is backing Cinestate movies. Mr. Sonnier, he says, is always asking, “How do we underpin that? How do we de-risk this?’ ”
“Brawl” demonstrates the strange-bedfellow fans Mr. Sonnier’s movies attract. It got a standing ovation among cinephiles at the Venice Film Festival last year.
It was also praised on Gab, a social network popular with the alt-right—a loose agglomeration of groups with far-right ideologies—as a morality play about a downtrodden Aryan warrior. One Gab commenter wrote: “I give it 4.5 Swastikas out of 5.”
Mr. Sonnier says he wasn’t aware of white-nationalist and neo-Nazi support of the film. “We make these movies understanding they’re going to be controversial. The reactions that come from them, we can’t control.”
In the film, Mr. Vaughn’s character has a cross tattooed on his skull and no patience for Latino fellow inmates. “Last time I checked,” he goads one before dispatching him in the prison yard, “the colors of the flag weren’t red, white and burrito.”
For a while, Mr. Sonnier followed a typical Hollywood trajectory. He wrote “Hollywood or bust” on his Dallas high-school walls before enrolling in the University of Southern California’s film program. He interned for A-list producer
After several years at United Talent Agency, he had his own management firm, where he signed talent such as Ms. Gerwig. She earned an Oscar nomination for directing “Lady Bird” but was then known only among indie-film fans. To pay the bills, he made direct-to-video shoot-’em-up films with
the wrestling champion.
One day, he dropped off Ms. Gerwig at an audition for
art-house film “Greenberg,” he says, and met Mr. Austin for lunch on Sunset Boulevard. A fan approached the wrestler, had him autograph her arm and returned to show she’d had it tattooed. “Talk about walking in two universes,” he says.
The Austin features, with titles such as “Hunt to Kill,” taught Mr. Sonnier a simple formula: budgets under $1 million and foreign-rights deals that put the project in the black before cameras roll. He deployed what he calls a “Mad Libs” plot:
“A guy named Jim/John/Jack gets out of prison/wakes up from the dead/survives and comes back to his hometown/scene of the crime/where the bad guys are and kills everyone to save his family/save himself/save someone who can’t save themselves.”
He says: “As long as we stuck to the Mad Lib, the movie sold 300,000 to 500,000 units.”
Mr. Sonnier was making money in his dream job. He met his wife,
an entertainment publicist, at a Malibu party. “Twilight” actress
caught their wedding bouquet.
Tragedy struck in 2010, when his mother was murdered. Less than two years later, his father was murdered. Mr. Sonnier began questioning how he was spending his time in Hollywood. “You have no time for bullshit after your parents are murdered,” he says.
He believed he was watching a “growing hysteria” in Los Angeles, a culture of fame, politics and immorality that didn’t jell with his Texas upbringing. He worried his children would grow up self-absorbed. He wasn’t getting along with colleagues and had earned a reputation as a “cowboy” who could be difficult to work with, he and associates say. He sold his house to
and moved back to Dallas.
Cinestate will confront its biggest-budget bet yet in the coming months with “Dragged Across Concrete,” which cost $15 million. The movie has
Lions Gate Entertainment
behind it, but Cinestate hasn’t heard if it will secure a wide theatrical release. Hollywood agents and executives have privately wondered how Mr. Gibson’s previous remarks against women and Jews, paired with a movie featuring police brutality, could be anything but divisive. Lions Gate declined to comment.
Another challenge may be casting his next movie, “Run Hide Fight,” about a young woman who fights back during a school shooting. It interested executives at studios such as Paramount Pictures who ultimately passed, says
its writer and director.
The furor over school gun violence, renewed after the Parkland, Fla., shooting, has Mr. Rankin worried about finding an actor for the movie’s heroine. “I assume it’s going to be a replay of when it was on the market: ‘I love this, but I don’t want to be seen holding a weapon at this time,’ ” says Mr. Rankin. “There seems to be a bell curve, where something frightening now is relevant a year from now.”
Mr. Sonnier wants to start filming soon and is ready for the blowback question: Doesn’t this movie argue that the only thing to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good girl with a gun?
“Let them think that,” he says. “I think it has more to do with a genuinely strong female character.”
Write to Erich Schwartzel at firstname.lastname@example.org