Before he casts actors in his movies, producer Dallas Sonnier 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, Timothée Chalamet, they don’t know who the hell he is,” Mr. Sonnier says. “They haven’t seen ‘Lady Bird,’ and they certainly haven’t seen ‘Call Me By Your Name.’ But if I text them Vince Vaughn, Kurt Russell, Don Johnson ? 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 Walmart as soon as they hit the shelves.
Mr. Sonnier’s company, Cinestate , which made “Brawl,” is backed by an anonymous Texas oil heiress, he says, to produce “populist entertainment.”
The 38-year-old former talent manager, who got his start working with actor and director Greta Gerwig, 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 Hillary Clinton and had lost respect for Donald Trump 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 Mel Gibson 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.”