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Producer Dallas Sonnier has partnered with publisher Will Evans to create Cinestate, a new venture that marries the worlds of film, television, audio and books.
The company will focus on publishing books, producing and financing screen content, and creating audio programming in the form of podcasting and audio production. It is starting out with several projects on two different mediums.
Sonnier just wrapped production on Brawl in Cell Block 99, a prison thriller written and directed by S. Craig Zahler that stars Vince Vaughn and Don Johnson.
The company is also in negotiations with Larry Clark, the filmmaker behind the infamous Kids, to direct an unnamed dramatic horror film.
It has also optioned Militia, a 2015 Black List script written by Henry Dunham. Dunham will also direct the project, now renamed The Abilene Incident.
Then there is what it hopes will be its groundbreaking calling card that could set it apart from others, an audio work titled The Narrow Caves that features the voice talent of Vincent D’Onofrio, Wyatt Russell, Will Patton and Lili Simmons.
Sonnier has spent the last 10 years as a manager-producer at the bicoastal firm Caliber Media with partner Jack Heller. The two have dissolved the former shingle and now Sonnier has set up shop in his hometown (and namesake) of Dallas, Texas.
Sonnier had been looking for a way to return to Dallas with his wife and their three children after a devastating one-two punch of losing both his mother and father in separate murders, one in 2010, the other in 2012. His friends introduced him to Evans, then the head of a local book publisher named Deep Vellum. After the two met, the realized there was an opportunity to explore a space not much utilized by media companies.
The focus of Cinestate will be exploiting what the duo call a “story universe.” The plan is to be selective about the books they put out as every title is intended to be developed into a movie. At the same time, the property will also be further developed in the audio and book space in a way that expands and deepens a story’s universe.
“We’re not going to compete with corporate publishers,” says Evans. “We will focus on a niche that we can work with creators and then turn their stories into movies.”
“The idea is to create a constant stream of content and keep audiences engaged,” says Sonnier.
When long-standing partnerships end, many times bitterness and hurt rise to the surface. Not so in this case, where Sonnier and Heller’s interests lay on two separate paths.
“Cinestate is the culmination of everything that Dallas loves and stands for,” says Heller, who is also producing Cell Block 99 with Sonnier. “Seeing him move to his hometown and build his dream company gives me a daily smile when my phone rings with a Texas area code. As two best friends who can’t go a few hours without speaking to each other, we will continue to work together on many projects well beyond the ones we have on deck, but I also look forward to us being each others biggest fans on the ones we don’t.”
A key pillar to Cinestate’s launch is Zahler, the writer-director of Bone Tomahawk, the well-received 2015 cannibal Western that starred Patrick Wilson, Kurt Russell and Richard Jenkins.
Zahler, who is Sonnier’s longtime client, is so prolific that, according to Sonnier, it would be almost impossible to produce all his work as movies. But other mediums provide new avenues to get the work before audiences.
The Narrow Caves, is based on an early Zahler script that he rewrote and refreshed. Zahler also has a story mapped out for a spinoff to Bone Tomahawk but is not interested in directing it right now, so Cinestate, along with Heller, is looking at publishing it as a book or as an audio production (there’s even a board game in development). And set to launch later this week at the Frankfurt Book Fair is a novel by Zahler titled Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child.
Zahler has seen many A-listers come and go on some of his high-profile scripts over the years, and they’ve become stuck in development, and he admits it’s a frustrating process.
“Almost none of my scripts are being made by the system. People say they like edgy, but then they are afraid of the edge,” says Zahler, just two days after wrapping production on Cell Block 99. “But Dallas looks at all these scripts, and not just mine, and sees unrealized potential.”
Sonnier would look at the scripts Zahler sold but which did not get made and wondered, “People sell screenplays all the time. Then they sit on the shelf and don’t get made. How do you monetize a dormant screenplay?”
The audio aspect is a key component for the company. Cinestate has signed an exclusive deal with Audible.com, the internet audio programmer, and looks to produce works that they call an “ear movie.” Armed with a narrator, actors, sound mix and a score, the works are meant to combine the best of an audio book and a classic British radio play.
“Here’s a way to have people hear it, and maybe give it a life,” Zahler says. “Maybe it’ll be a movie, maybe not, but it will have life in some way. That is comforting to a writer.”
As the company prepared to officially launch Monday, Sonnier says he used to ask himself the question: “Why haven’t a book publisher and a movie producer partnered like this before? It seemed like a natural fit.”
The question hangs in the air for a moment before Sonnier answers it: “We’re in Dallas, we don’t have to play by the rules of New York or LA.”
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