On movie screens, stories of triumph over adversity are commonplace. But few of the stories that Dallas Sonnier tries to bring to the big screen can match the obstacles in his real-life effort to make it in Hollywood.
The 1998 Highland Park High School graduate spent several years trying to build enough money and connections to launch his own production studio. Along the way he was forced to deal with the death of both of his parents, who were each murdered in separate incidents two years apart.
Now his professional outlook is brightening as Sonnier recently wrapped production on his studio’s highest profile film thus far. And with a trial underway for his father’s suspected killer, he’s able to bring some closure to his personal tragedies, as well.
Producing a career
When he was growing up, Sonnier became a fan of the annual USA Film Festival in Dallas. His parents routinely bought him tickets and took him to see foreign and independent films.
“I just walked up to producers and actors and directors and just introduced myself and asked them questions,” he said.
He acknowledges that few people believe his story of teenage inspiration, about peeking at a Playboy magazine when he was at a friend’s house and reading an article about Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the producing duo behind Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun.
“I always wanted to be a producer,” Sonnier said. “I was just fascinated by the lifestyle. At that stage I started to investigate what college would be like in Los Angeles. It was a new thing that I had to discover on my own.”
Sonnier eventually went to USC film school, where he applied before his senior year at HPHS. He worked as an intern for Oscar-winning producer Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men), which allowed him to read unproduced screenplays.
He graduated from USC in 2002 with dual degrees in business and film, and became an assistant at United Talent Agency, which allowed him plenty of networking opportunities.
Starting a studio
In 2008, Sonnier and Jack Heller, a USC classmate, started Caliber Media. He was 28 and Heller was 25, and neither had enough money, so they took out a $25,000 loan from Heller’s father and secured an office in a storage closet behind the tattoo parlor from the reality show “L.A. Ink.”
The duo went to Comic-Con in San Diego where they met former wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and wound up collaborating on nine low-budget action movies that were sold to more established distributors, and premiered on DVD and video-on-demand. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was a start.
“With those Steve Austin movies, we learned how to make films, and not just raising money, but also the physical production and the legal side of the business,” Sonnier said. “We’ll always look back fondly on our time making movies with him.”
Caliber segued into other independent projects before raising funds for two years to shoot Bone Tomahawk, a Western that finished filming in October on sets
originally built for Iron Man.
The company hopes to debut the film — which stars Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, David Arquette, and Richard Jenkins — at film festivals next year to secure a distribution deal.
“We were off the radar of Hollywood, and we liked that in a way. But it got to a point where we needed to up the stakes a little bit,” Sonnier said. “This is definitely the highest profile project so far. Getting this movie made has been a career-defining event.”
As he reviews potential scripts for Caliber’s next project, Sonnier lives in a gated community in upscale Calabasas, Calif., where he is neighbors with several celebrities, including two of the Kardashian sisters.
He works primarily from home as Caliber’s offices relocated in early November from Los Angeles to New York, as the company transitions away from client management and more toward production.
Sonnier was still in college when his parents divorced in 2001.
They sold their Park Cities home a couple of years later.
Flash forward to 2010, just days after Sonnier and his wife gave birth to a daughter, and he received the news that his mother was the victim of a murder-suicide near Fredericksburg, following a dispute with her second husband.
Almost two years later to the day, Sonnier’s father, a prominent Lubbock pathologist, was brutally killed, allegedly by a hitman hired by a plastic surgeon over a mutual romantic interest.
“The death of my parents fueled my desire to finish this film and get it produced. It became a symbol of something I needed to accomplish in my life,” Sonnier said. “I couldn’t stop what happened to them, but being so far away, it became a personal mission of mine to get this movie made as a way to prove to myself that I could honor my parents’ memories.”
On the same day that production on Bone Tomahawk wrapped, Sonnier flew to Lubbock to testify in the trial for his father’s accused murderer.
It’s an example of how he has refused to allow his tragedy to overshadow his triumphs, even under the most difficult of circumstances.
“I made a decision that I was not going to lose myself in depression or agony,” Sonnier said. “I wanted to honor my parents and protect my family. I just feel so lucky. My parents were very instrumental in me becoming who I am today.”