How Cinestate Is Trumping Hollywood

Cinestate is finding success by championing uncompromising filmmakers, and proving that Hollywood isn't the be-all and end-all of the American film industry.

The Standoff At Sparrow Creek
RLJE Films

The Standoff of Sparrow Creek will be one of the most controversial movies of 2019. Mark my words. Henry Dunham’s debut feature-length garnered some considerable buzz during its festival run earlier this year, but some reviews of the movie contain a trigger warning. “Trigger” is also the operative word in this case, as some people’s enjoyment of the film will be be influenced by which side of the gun control debate they agree with.

As a thriller, though, The Standoff At Sparrow Creek looks taut, intense, and precise. The movie has been compared to Reservoir Dogs due to its contained setting and whodunit story, but this one looks like it’s going to venture to darker places than Quentin Tarantino’s classic caper.

The Standoff At Sparrow Creek is set to be released early next year. In the meantime, RLJE Films has released a trailer to whet our appetites:

Starring James Badge Dale, Patrick Fischler, and Brian Geraghty, the film follows a militia who must interrogate each other after an incident of domestic terrorism at a police funeral. You see, it turns out that one of the group’s many AR-15s is missing — the same type of gun responsible for the massacre — which means that the rogue gunman is one of their own. If they don’t find out who the culprit is before the cops do, they’ll all be toast. That’s if the mounting distrust and rising tensions between the militiamen doesn’t cause them to turn on each other first…

It goes without saying that this movie is bound to cause some contentious debate when it’s released. Militias, gun massacres, police corruption, and Second Amendment arguments make the news far too often these days, so this movie is chillingly topical. However, this type of bold, daring, uncompromising cinema is why the film’s production company, Cinestate, is making a lot of noise — for better or worse, depending on who you ask.

Despite the majority of their output being met with substantial critical acclaim thus far, Cinestate has frequently come under fire for making movies that seemingly endorse questionable politics. S. Craig Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk is a western about a band of white knights pursuing cannibalistic native savages in the wild frontier. His follow-up, the prison-drama Brawl In Cell Block 99, stars Vince Vaughn as a patriotic Christian skinhead who spends much of the movie beating up minorities. Zahler’s latest movie, Dragged Across Concrete, is a police brutality thriller starring Vaughn and Mel Gibson as a pair of racist cops who turn to a life of crime after they get suspended for their strong-arm tactics. Zahler also wrote Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, which features Nazi puppets committing hate crimes. His next movie won’t be as edgy.

Elsewhere, there is also a movie in development about a school shooting in which a female student fights back against the shooters by obtaining a gun of her own. Apparently, this one is proving difficult to cast due to the subject matter. Yikes.

Understandably, these types of movies are off-putting to some. While I’d argue that Zahler’s movies are politically apathetic and much more nuanced than their descriptions suggest, some have interpreted them as entertainment for the Fox News viewers, Trump supporters, and alt-right lunatics. Zahler doesn’t really care what people think about his work, but he also thinks people are misunderstanding his intentions.

“People can look at it however they want, but my hope is more people will look into the characters and the world of my film instead of guessing at my intentions, because people aren’t guessing my intentions. I’m not politically driven.”

Zahler’s sentiment reflects the brand’s ethos, but there is some element of truth to the fact they might be courting the so-called silent majority. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, company-founder Dallas Sonnier had this to say when confronted about making movies for an audience of undesirables:

“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.”

Clearly, Sonnier has identified a niche that’s perhaps disillusioned with what’s coming out of Hollywood these days. Their money is as good as anyone else’s and he doesn’t care who they voted for. The movies he backs are finding audiences everywhere — from the Venice Film Festival to 4chan — and that’s one of the elements that makes them so morbidly fascinating.

Still, while it’s easy to focus on the controversial aspects of their output, it’s also worth noting that Cinestate is championing diversity. That’s easy to overlook when they have movies with militias and Mel Gibson on the horizon. Yet their upcoming slate also includes films from talented women: Satanic Panic is a Chelsea Stardust-directed horror flick with an original script by Grady Hendrix based on a story by Hendrix and Ted Geoghegan, and After Birth is a female retelling of Frankenstein that’s being helmed by Laura Moss.

In addition to producing hard-edged crime, horror, and Western flicks, the company publishes books and they’re actively seeking authors who are women, people of color, and LGBTQ. If anything, Cinestate is proving that they’re interested in working with talented artists regardless of their sensibilities — problematic, progressive, whatever. As their guidelines state, they want to promote “unique voices” who’ve had “diverse experiences.”

Cinestate’s business model isn’t too dissimilar to that of Blumhouse or A24. Like those entities, they’re building a successful brand by making unique movies on the cheap that occupy a profitable sweet spot between the fringe and the mainstream. If they believe in a project enough to back it, the filmmakers enjoy substantial creative freedom to bring their visions to life. Zahler is proof of that. He makes lengthy, character-driven, ultra-violent tough guy movies that contain both arthouse and grindhouse sensibilities, all of which he has final cut on. Suffice to say, the faith Sonnier and co. have shown in him until now has been paying off.

The success of Zahler’s movies has been a key driving force behind the company’s steady growth. So much so that Dragged Across Concrete — a three-hour stakeout/heist crime epic — will mark their first film to be given a wide theatrical release. It’s also their most ambitious to date, with a production budget of $15M (which is triple what, Brawl, their previous most expensive movie cost to make). If this gamble pays off then who knows how much bigger and bolder their future projects will be. Sonnier told The Movie Crypt podcast that he wants to make a sci-fi space movie someday, so the sky is the limit.

Maybe you don’t enjoy the unapologetic films that Cinestate is peddling, but they are sneaking into the mainstream, on their own terms. And the best part? The company is situated in Dallas, Texas, proving that Hollywood is not the be-all and end-all when it comes to succeeding in the American film industry. This upstart brand is going places by taking risks and showing faith in creators with some radical ideas. It’s only a matter of time before they land a huge breakthrough hit that makes the universe take notice.

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