How a Right-Wing Movie Studio Enabled the ‘Harvey Weinstein’ of Indie Film
Cinestate producer Adam Donaghey (“A Ghost Story”) was arrested for raping a minor. But audio of him sexually harassing a crewmember has been making the rounds for years.
Earlier this year, a Facebook post spread like wildfire through the Texas film community. It was the account of a young actress, alleging that Adam Donaghey, a rising producer in the region, had raped her when she was 16. Donaghey, who has denied the allegation, was subsequently arrested in late April on suspicion of sexual assault of a minor, and is currently free on bail. The Dallas Police Department would not provide any further information.
Donaghey, 39, was a ubiquitous presence in the emerging Dallas movie scene. A rich childhood friend of the director David Lowery (Pete’s Dragon), he had gained entrée into this world by producing Lowery’s 2009 feature directorial debut, St. Nick. “When Adam was introduced to the scene, he was vouched for by Lowery. A lot of credit was given to him just based on that, and a lot of people really accepted him based on that,” says local filmmaker Blair Rowan.
He went on to co-found the Oak Cliff Film Festival in Dallas, as well as shepherd the re-launch of the famed Texas Theatre, which soon became the go-to spot for film-industry locals to mingle. A series of low-budget features followed until Lowery brought him back to produce A Ghost Story. The film, starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck (who has his own sordid history), was a critical hit and instantly made Donaghey a hot commodity. (Lowery tells The Daily Beast that he was “blindsided” by the rape allegation and “heartbroken” over it, and that the incident in question occurred before A Ghost Story.)
Enter Cinestate. Founded in 2016 by former Hollywood talent manager Dallas Sonnier, the Dallas-based studio sought to make “populist entertainment” for the Trump-friendly crowd long ignored by Hollywood. “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,” Sonnier told The Wall Street Journal. In December of last year, The Ringer published a glowing longform feature on the company with the title, “Does the Movie Industry Need an Unsafe Space?”
And, with films like Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and Dragged Across Concrete, the latter a morality play urging sympathy for a racist cop, played by Mel Gibson, who beats down innocent black folks, as well as the launch of the right-wing website Rebeller, its raison d’être was clear.
When Cinestate joined forces with Donaghey in 2017, handing him producing duties on a number of its genre films—The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, VFW and Satanic Panic among them—it was met with a raised eyebrow by many in the Texas film scene, who were well aware of Donaghey’s reputation as a serial predator.
“The first time I was ever on set I was warned about Adam Donaghey,” a female filmmaker tells me. “I was told he was the Harvey Weinstein of Dallas.”
The Daily Beast has spoken to more than 30 people within the Texas film scene, from directors to actors to PAs, who say that Donaghey’s penchant for sexual harassment and labor violations was common knowledge. (Many of these people have requested anonymity, fearing professional retaliation.)
Cristen Leah Haynes first began telling friends about her horrifying encounter with Donaghey immediately after it happened, on July 25, 2014. They were nearing the end of production on the indie film Occupy Texas when Donaghey, the line producer, requested that Haynes, who was serving in the art department, ride with him to another location. Since she was just 21 years old and new to the industry, Haynes obliged.
“We start driving over there and we get there before everybody else. And the whole way there, he’s coming on to me, and it was very blunt. Show me your underwear—not even a question in the beginning, just a statement, like he thought it was OK to say,” Haynes tells The Daily Beast. “I said, ‘I hope you’re joking, but no, that’s OK, thanks.’ But he kept going, so that’s when I pulled my phone out and decided that I should document what was happening in case I got fired after that, or in case he started doing something physically.”
In the audio, which Haynes provided to The Daily Beast, you can hear Donaghey repeatedly harass her, first requesting to see her underwear and then asking if he can penetrate her digitally. “He kept going. I kept kind of laughing it off, trying to ease the tension,” Haynes recalls.
Listen to the audio here:
Here is a brief transcript of part of the exchange:
Donaghey: Come on, just for a second…it’s not a big deal!
Haynes: I feel like…it almost wouldn’t be that bad if you weren’t trying to trade for it.
Donaghey: I’m not trying to trade for it. I just want to see your underwear. That’s all.
Haynes: Yeah…I’m not getting anything out of that. I wouldn’t want to do that.
Donaghey: You just said…hold on a sec! You just said something like, it wouldn’t be a big deal if you weren’t trying to trade, and then you’re saying, well, I’m not getting anything out of that.
Haynes: Well yeah, because it’s not what I want to do. Why would I do it if it’s not something I want to do?
Donaghey: What do you want to do? What do you want to get out of it?
Haynes: Nothing! I don’t want to do it! It’s like saying, I’m going to shoot you in the foot. Well, what do I get out of it? Exactly, you don’t get anything out of it, but I get to shoot you in the foot.
Donaghey: Well, there’s plenty that you could get out of me.
Haynes: Oh, like what?
Donaghey: I’ll make you cum.
Donaghey: Even with just my fingers.
Donaghey: With no reciprocation.
Haynes: That’s awful.
“I think he was aware of his position. He’s a big line producer who signs the checks, and he’s pretty much my job security, so he has the power to say, ‘You’re fired.’ He knew that,” says Haynes, who says that Donaghey offered her a position as “set dresser” if she gave in to his demands. “People will hate this, but the whole time I was thinking, ‘What kind of signals have I sent him up until now that made him think this was OK?’ It just kind of made me sick to my stomach. Just the balls on this guy, you know?”
According to Haynes, she reported it to her one confidant on set, the first assistant director. “I remember him saying, ‘Oh God, I wish I didn’t know that.’ And that’s when I was like, well, the one person that I know that can do something about it is unable to.” (The AD told The Daily Beast, “I am a committed advocate of women’s rights, and I am disgusted by Adam’s behavior and treatment of Cristen. I have no memory of Cristen coming to me to report the incident at the time that it occurred, and I wasn’t aware of what actually transpired until another colleague played me Cristen’s recording several years later.”)
She also confided in her friend Jeff Walker, a local Dallas filmmaker, who confirms to The Daily Beast that Haynes told him of the harassment episode “around the time that it happened” in 2014. A whisper campaign began on film sets, with female crew members being warned that “Adam was a creep and to stay away from him,” as one person put it. “It’s a freelance culture and there’s a lot of fear that you’ll never work again, so it’s difficult for people to talk about,” explains Walker.
Then, in December 2016, shortly after the election of Donald Trump, Haynes played the audio for several producers at the wrap party for the film Jules of Light and Dark, a gay love story where Haynes served as second assistant director. (Two producers confirm to The Daily Beast that they heard it then.) “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.
“I just wanted to create an awareness, hoping that the people that do hire him would stop and that he would kind of slowly make his way out of the industry,” says Haynes. Also, she feared being iced out of projects due to Donaghey’s considerable reach. “I’ve actually had a producer tell a close coworker of mine that they will not hire me because I am linked to this ‘scandal,’ which was shocking and alienating for me.”
Just after she released the audio, Donaghey reached out to Haynes by phone for what she describes as a weak apology. “As soon as the audio circulated in 2016, he called me on the phone and tried to apologize. And I responded, saying there really wasn’t much he could do at this point,” says Haynes. “This is years after the fact and you’re only apologizing because somebody has said something, and because there’s proof.” During their conversation, Haynes recalls him asking her, “What do we have to do to make this go away?”
“I did say if there’s something that you would like to do, you could leave the industry in this area, or leave the industry everywhere and find something else to do so I can go about my life and not have to worry about this. But he declined,” she says. (When reached by email, Donaghey told The Daily Beast, “I can tell you that as soon as I got word of it, I called Cristen and made what I realized was a veiled attempt at an apology. I was upset and in retrospect, probably made things worse by not thinking through my approach... There was never a formal complaint made and I always felt it was a private matter that was resolved appropriately.” He declined to comment on the rape allegation, offering, “I look forward to proving my innocence in court.”)
Watching Donaghey’s star continue to rise in the industry, culminating in his partnership with Cinestate, proved deeply troubling for Haynes given that, as one filmmaker told me, Cinestate has a virtual “monopoly” on projects being made in the region. “I’m sure a lot of people weren’t dissuaded, because indie film is a tough world and if there’s someone with money and connections, they might overlook that in the pursuit of getting their movie made,” Swaynos maintains.
“There were multiple moments of that same feeling that I had when I first told somebody—a kind of sickening helplessness of, well, this is just how the industry goes and people will just turn a blind eye to it,” says Haynes.
Over a dozen people in the Dallas film scene, from filmmakers to producers to crew, told The Daily Beast that two people who turned “a blind eye to it” were Cinestate founder Dallas Sonnier and his producing partner Amanda Presmyk.
By 2017, when Dallas Sonnier and Amanda Presmyk began partnering with Donaghey on feature films, the majority of those in the Dallas film scene had either heard the sexual-harassment audio, or were aware of its contents. “Everyone in the industry in Dallas knew about the sexual harassment of Cristen,” one filmmaker tells me. Most also knew about a series of sexual-harassment complaints against Donaghey during his time at the Texas Theatre, including a 2013 episode where he is said to have made an aggressive pass at a bartender who worked there, and two separate incidents where he allegedly groped theatre patrons.
Barak Epstein, who re-launched the Texas Theatre (which he still runs to this day) and co-founded the Oak Cliff Film Festival with Donaghey, claims he is not aware of any controversy other than the one that allegedly occurred in 2013: “We were contacted about an inappropriate interaction at the Texas Theatre fueled by Adam’s drinking at the bar. We had more than one source confirm the incident and Adam was immediately banned from entry. Adam recognized his behavior and pledged to seek treatment for alcohol abuse. He was not an employee, but a legal investor, so at the time it was not fiscally possible for us to part ways.”
But Donaghey’s banishment only lasted around six months, after which he continued to prey on people at the theatre. It wasn’t until 2017, when filmmaker Blair Rowan pressured Epstein to do something about Donaghey, that they took appropriate action. “In 2017, when more rumors circulated about inappropriate behavior (not at the Texas Theatre but allegedly on a film set) we took the legal and financial steps to have him removed from the business entity,” Epstein says. (Donaghey refused to comment on the Texas Theatre allegations.)
Ten people have told The Daily Beast that they reached out to either Dallas Sonnier or Amanda Presmyk to inform them of Donaghey’s history of bad behavior—including his sexual harassment of Cristen, and the existence of the audio—and that their protestations fell on deaf ears. Further, four people allege that they personally offered up the audio to Presmyk, who declined to hear it. “They completely swept it under the rug,” one prominent local filmmaker tells me.
During an hour-long conversation with The Daily Beast, Sonnier and Presmyk both allege that they’ve never heard the audio to this day, that it was never offered to them, and that they merely knew “the gist” of the incident, which was first brought to their attention in mid-2017. “[Adam] was part of our producing team—I’m not denying that. But I confront the hypothesis that there is some scandal here, because there isn’t. I don’t always get things perfectly right but I’m always trying my best,” Sonnier tells The Daily Beast. “I have a different system of handling things that may be a little antiquated than Twitter in 2020 demands of companies and CEOs. I thought a person I knew and worked with made a pass at another person I knew and worked with, and I told him to apologize to her. I didn’t understand the severity of it. I didn’t take the time to investigate it. I’m guilty of that… portion.”
Sonnier pointed to the fact that he doesn’t live in Dallas and that he was very busy running his company as the reasons why he never so much as sought out the audio, even though it has been circulated widely within the Texas film world. He also criticized Haynes for not filing an official sexual-harassment complaint, and repeatedly characterized the allegations against him and his studio as “performative” and “partisan.”
“We’re under siege right now,” says Sonnier. “Everyone involved has their own personal vendettas against us. They have a history of harassing us and having problems with us. It feels like a targeted hit, and it feels like an attack. I think people have real issues with us. They have issues with our success, with the amount of movies we’ve made and in a short time built this company to be something very special. It feels partisan.”
When I asked him to expand on his “partisan” comments, he said, “I think there’s a perception of politics at Cinestate, and the truth is, we are a truly diverse company… I am a complicated guy who identifies as conservative because of certain fiscal responsibilities, limited federal government, things like that. But I’m no fan of the president.”
But Haynes disagrees with Sonnier’s theory. “I’m not attacking anybody. I’m merely stating facts. I’m not out to burn Cinestate. I’m hoping that, given this information, they will evolve into something better. I don’t have any vendetta against them.” She also questions why, if they indeed haven’t heard it, they haven’t tried to get ahold of the audio. “I feel if someone was under my employ, those things would be the first things I’d try to find out. Even to have someone suggest that someone’s done something like that, why wouldn’t you look into it? That’s just negligence,” says Haynes, adding, “I question his morals and values as a company owner.”
And the problems with Cinestate extended far beyond Donaghey.
In recent weeks, the writer Josh Goldbloom has been sounding the alarm on Cinestate’s knowledge of Donaghey’s harassment episode, as well as its supposed negligence as a company. When the news of Donaghey’s arrest broke, a Reddit thread popped up. The comments were soon flooded with eye-opening testimonials from crew members on Cinestate productions alleging poor treatment.
Three crew members have alleged to The Daily Beast that during production of Cinestate’s grindhouse horror film VFW, which was released in February of this year, the veteran actor Fred Williamson attempted to grope an assistant costume designer during a wardrobe fitting. “About 10 minutes into our fitting he reached out for her backside and she scooted out of the way. The more she scooted, the more he extended his hand. It was unbelievable. We awkwardly tried to laugh it off,” a crewmember who witnessed the incident tells The Daily Beast. “He was reaching to grab my ass or slap my ass after some quick comment I don’t recall exactly regarding my backside,” the victim, who wishes to remain anonymous, says. (Williamson told The Daily Beast, “If this is the way people wanna go and get popular or get famous or get noticed, this is going to be tough for every male actor or director in the business. I’m sorry she feels that anything happened that was inappropriate, but it certainly didn’t come from me.”)
Both the victim and the crewmember say that the groping attempt, which occurred two days before filming began, was reported to Amanda Presmyk, who told them she’d talk to Williamson. But he remained on the film with no further explanation until, several weeks into production, a female crewmember quit in the hair and makeup department after allegedly receiving a barrage of sexual overtures from Williamson. Four crew members say that Sonnier and Presmyk then held an on-set meeting with the crew where they explained that they couldn’t replace Williamson, and that women on set should abide by a “buddy system” when dealing with Williamson.
“I don’t know the extent of any allegation because none was ever filed, and because the person involved has chosen not to call me back,” Sonnier maintains. “Nobody ever told me they saw him grope anyone. I sat down with them and I said, hey guys, it would cost me hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars if we had to fire an actor [during] shooting, so I’m seeking a conversation with you all to bless a plan with me that we all feel good about.”
Presmyk adds, “The only thing I have ever been aware of on VFW is that Fred Williamson said something off-color or very uncomfortable toward [redacted] and she elected to leave, and then it was brought to us.”
When I told Presmyk that a number of crew members had come forward to tell me about the groping incident, she confessed that she was aware of that as well. “Yeah, frankly, um… it wasn’t something that stood out in my mind until you mention it just now. I remember being texted and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry to hear that. Let’s talk about it.’” She says she remembers it being more “lighthearted in nature, in terms of ‘gross old man,’ that kind of thing, and us commiserating as women.”
On top of the sexual-harassment charges, six crew members on VFW and Satanic Panic accuse Cinestate of making them work oppressively long hours—sometimes 18-hour days—with no overtime pay, and that Donaghey, a producer on both films, consistently pressured crew members into being drastically underpaid either by inputting less hours on their time cards or asking them to turn down overtime. “At that point, it’s a safety issue,” one crewmember on Satanic Panic says. “When you hire someone who has been accused of sexually assaulting someone, and you put them in charge of writing checks for everyone in your entire company, are you not giving that person power to abuse further—whether sexually or through forced labor?”
In addition to signing the checks, which gave him a great deal of power over crew members, a number of people who’ve worked with Donaghey tell The Daily Beast that he was known to threaten people’s careers if they didn’t give in to his demands. “Adam was the kind of guy that threatened people,” filmmaker Jeff Walker says. “He’d make threats like, ‘You’ll never fuckin’ work in this town again.’ It was like he wanted to be Harvey Weinstein.”
Two crew members on Satanic Panic also allege that the actress Ruby Modine (daughter of Matthew) was pressured by Donaghey into performing a sex scene with an obsessed fanboy.
“The guy that was cast didn’t show up. Ruby [Modine] confessed to me that the PA that picked her up from the airport was saying, ‘Oh my gosh, my roommate is so in love with you, and we’re really excited that you’re here.’ It ended up being that the guy they replaced this character with was the fan, so she was forced to do a sex scene with the guy who was a fan of hers,” a crew member tells The Daily Beast. “She protested it to myself, to Amanda, and to Adam. I told them that she didn’t feel comfortable with it and he needed to talk to her about it, and Adam said, ‘I don’t care what she says, we’re going to shoot our movie,’ and walked out of the room.”
“It rubbed me the wrong way,” the crewmember adds. “She ended up doing this scene with a guy who was a fan of hers, who could have been pleasurized by the scene. It was wrong, and obscene.” (Modine declined to comment; Donaghey could not be reached for comment; Presmyk, while acknowledging the hire, says, “It has never been expressed to me directly that there was any particular discomfort with the scene”; Satanic Panic director Chelsea Stardust alleges she was “completely unaware of Adam’s behavior and history until a few weeks ago,” and that “no one involved with the production expressed any concerns to me about Adam’s involvement.”)
The scene remains in the film.
Cinestate finally cut ties with Donaghey in the wake of his arrest. They’ve also announced a series of measures to ensure on-set safety. “We’re trying to fix this moving forward. We’re trying to make the sets a safer place,” Sonnier tells me. “We have put together a really awesome all-female task force that has many advocates, policy attorneys, Dallas crew members, female producers. They’re putting together a series of standards and procedures and a code of conduct to do in these situations.”
He adds, “We want Cinestate to be the gold standard of safety for women moving forward.”
Sonnier also formally apologized to Haynes in an email to her dated May 27, just as the Reddit threat began picking up steam:
When asked whether the company would stop working with Fred Williamson, however, he couldn’t say. “I don’t know. I’m not gonna fuckin’ trash Fred Williamson right now without all the facts,” Sonnier said, before raising his voice to a yell: “People are saying my words are reactionary. You’re goddamn right they are! I’m trying to make my sets a safer place!”
Those who’ve worked with Cinestate in the past aren’t entirely convinced that the new measures will be enough.
“As for the way that Cinestate is supporting women in film, three out of four of us from my costume department on VFW have decided to never work in film again. It’s been disgusting,” a crewmember tells The Daily Beast. “I truly hope speaking about this leads to a more open conversation so that the film industry can actually be nurturing of its creatives instead of being so regularly exploitative and dehumanizing.”
Haynes is skeptical as well. In February of this year, while working as a second assistant director on the Cinestate film Till Death, she says she was groped by another line producer while several crew members were casually lounging in a hot tub. (Two crew members corroborated her version of events to The Daily Beast.)
“We were in the hot tub in conversation and the line producer comes over to me, grabs the small of my back, and grabs really close into my inner thigh, toward him, and says, ‘Let’s dance.’ I really hoped he’d been drinking because he hadn’t acted like this until now. I said, ‘Nobody’s dancing,’ and then he did it again, to the point where the gaffer had to come over and see what was up, and then he saw what he was doing,” says Haynes. (Both Sonnier and Presmyk say they were “unaware” of the Till Death incident.)
To make matters worse, Donaghey was a producer on Till Death. Even though Haynes had turned down several jobs on Donaghey films since being harassed, she says the offer was too good to pass up, and that the production manager had assured her that she would be kept far away from Donaghey and not have any interactions with him, which she didn’t. While Sonnier alleges that he checked in with Haynes prior to shooting to see if she’d be OK working with Donaghey again, she says “that never happened.”
“There was no ‘come to peace’ moment with anyone in production,” she says. “I was hired, put in a room—not too far from Adam’s—and nobody mentioned anything. Nobody came to see if I was OK.”