Cinestate of Disaster
Sexual assault allegations shake the Texas film community
Filmmakers and fans met with a seismic reckoning this past week, set off by worker strikes from two major film publications owned by Dallas-based film studio Cinestate. The halting of work by Dallas-based Fangoria and Austin-based Birth.Movies.Death came after the publication of an exposé by The Daily Beast and a month-and-a-half of inaction by Cinestate in response to the April 27th arrest of Adam Donaghey, a prominently entrenched producer charged with sexual assault of a minor.
Donaghey most notably co-produced the acclaimed A Ghost Story in 2016 for a 2017 release with long-time friend and director David Lowery at A24 and was subsequently contracted by Cinestate after that film’s wide success.
Donaghey’s repeated misconduct on film sets falls under the category of open secret. Cristen Leah Haynes, the film’s art director, captured on audio a 2014 incident during the production of the film Occupy Texas. The audio circulated from then on in the Dallas film community. From the Daily Beast’s reporting and interviews with producers Jeff Walker and Don Swaynos:
“It became really common knowledge,” says Walker, with filmmakers sharing the audio with one another. “People would say, ‘Let me play this for you before hiring this person,’” adds Don Swaynos, a local producer.
Cinestate allowed Donaghey to continue producing films, including recent releases The Standoff at Sparrow Creak, Satanic Panic, and VFW. In the Daily Beast piece, Cinestate founder Dallas Sonnier and his partner in production Amanda Presmyk, who cut ties with Donaghey earlier this year, deny knowledge of the extent and seriousness of the allegations made against Donaghey by various film crewmembers prior to the April arrest. They also deny ever having been made aware of Haynes’ audio evidence, despite numerous accounts saying otherwise.
On June 8, Fangoria and Birth.Movies.Death editors released a statement calling on Cinestate to enact meaningful change and separate from Fangoria editorially. BMD had no editorial oversight by Cinestate as part of their recent purchase agreement with prior owners the Alamo Drafthouse. Both publications went on indefinite strike.
On June 10, Fangoria and BMD editors signed and released another joint statement expressing that they could not continue existence under Cinestate’s ownership, despite its intention to make donations to anti-sexual assault organizations like RAINN. According to the statement, Cinestate was seeking new buyers for both publications.
Sonnier responded with his “full support” of Fangoria and BMD staff speaking their minds. As of this writing, both Fangoria and BMD have not published new articles to their websites since June 9 and June 6, respectively. Conservative film critic Sonny Bunch, editor of a new Cinestate publication called Rebeller, announced that he was cutting ties as well.
Noteworthy filmmakers Joe Bob Briggs, Barbara Crampton and other film personalities and podcasters have since severed ties with Cinestate. Nightmare on Film Street, The Movie Crypt, Shock Waves by Blumhouse, Casualty Friday, and Post Mortem with Mick Garris have all removed themselves from the Fangoria Podcast Network in a move of solidarity with the victims and those calling for change.
The ethical stand by Fangoria, BMD, and others, while admirable, comes at a cost. Writers and artists for both publications now find themselves out of work simply for demanding safe working conditions or being caught in the crossfire between editorial staff and parent company. It’s an economic gut punch in the midst of a pandemic-driven recession that sends shockwaves through the industry.
Birth.Movies.Death experienced a similar scandal in 2016 under the ownership of the Alamo Drafthouse. Then-editor-in-chief Devin Faraci resigned amid allegations of past sexual assault. He was later quietly rehired by Drafthouse CEO Tim League in a freelance capacity to work on written descriptions of films appearing in the Drafthouse’s film festival Fantastic Fest.
Faraci resigned a second time when the public learned about his re-employment. which set off a series of events in which the Alamo Drafthouse cut ties with Fantastic Fest co-founder and Ain’t It Cool News founder Harry Knowles. The Drafthouse removed AICN as a sponsor for that year’s festival. Knowles later stepped down from running AICN.
Investigative reporting into the sexual assault history of Donaghey on set also turned up accounts of alleged harassment incidents involving actor Fred Williamson and oppressive overtime pay situations on the sets of VFW and Satanic Panic.
One crew member told the Daily Beast that Cinestate asked them to input fewer hours on timecards and pressured them into refusing overtime pay. “At that point, it’s a safety issue,” they said.
No one in the North Texas film community comes out of this a winner unless meaningful and measurable change results for film crew members. Film critics and freelance creatives are now out of work. This has tarnished a major production studio’s reputation. Fans have lost longtime sources of film news and editorial. The victims of sex abuse have yet to see justice and the necessary changes to an industry to ensure basic human dignity and safety on set.
Few consolations remain other than the definitive proof that the industry’s sexual misconduct issues include regional production hubs. They have the indisputable onus to do better, which hopefully bodes well for the future. Meanwhile, outpourings of support and networking opportunities for freelancers affected by the sudden shock of unemployment permeate Film Twitter.
As for horror fans, they’ve galvanized under the idea that they amount to more than one or two representative publications, no matter how much they’ll miss these brands if they don’t return under new ownership.