MAGA Movies Are Here. Does Anybody Care?

Inside the conservative film industry’s plan to destroy Hollywood and save its canceled stars.

Feb 17 2022, 6:28pm

The Daily Wire is a hugely popular conservative media company fronted by the joyless internet personality Ben Shapiro. Through a torrent of podcasts and blog posts, the site embraces a set of familiar takes: “Cancel culture is destroying Hollywood,” Joe Biden is running a “radical leftist administration.” They host stand-up comedy videos lampooning “all-woke no-joke douchebags.” They run a book club focused in part on titles “which the Left have chased out of classrooms.” They sell illustratively specific merch, like a replica bomb stamped with the word “TRUTH.” Now, they also sell movies. 

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In a January 2021 op-ed published on the site, Shapiro announced The Daily Wire was getting into show business, shouting that he was tired of losing the culture wars. "There is a reason millions of people believe lies about conservatives," he wrote. "They’ve been trained to do so by a culture that despises conservatives." So now, he said, "it’s time to blow up the Death Star that is the left-wing monopoly on entertainment." 

Within weeks, the company distributed its first movie, Run Hide Fight, a high-school thriller in which a young student fights back against a pack of her armed classmates. It was Die Hard plopped into a school shooting. Run Hide Fight was available exclusively for subscribers of The Daily Wire’s $12-a-month “Insider” tier. According to The Daily Wire, on release day, 300,000 people watched. The world mostly seemed to be ignoring Shapiro’s screen dreams. 

“It’s time to blow up the Death Star that is the left-wing monopoly on entertainment.” —Ben Shapiro

But then, over in old Hollywood, something stirred. And that something was the actress Gina Carano arguing on her Instagram Stories that criticizing conservatives today was akin to persecuting Jews in Nazi Germany. The blowback was swift: She was fired from her Disney+ TV show, The Mandalorian, and dropped by her reps at UTA. 

Carano’s response was swift, too. Within days she announced that she would be producing her own star vehicle for The Daily Wire. This was all a dream come true, she told Deadline. “I am sending out a direct message of hope to everyone living in fear of cancellation by the totalitarian mob.” In another statement on The Daily Wire, Shapiro made, naturally, more clumsy Star Wars references: “If they want to keep cancelling those who think differently, they’ll just be helping us build the X Wing to take down their Death Star."

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By the end of 2021, Carano would shoot a Western for The Daily Wire—Terror On The Prairie, in which she fights outlaws—and announce the production of another, White Knuckle, in which she fights a truck-driving serial killer. Suddenly, The Daily Wire had name recognition, and a content pipeline. 

These days, the landscape of entertainment feels infinite. Content once seen as fringe—anime, audio documentaries, true crime—is readily available and often utterly dominant. In place of the monoculture, we have an expanding sea of niche audiences. When you think about it, the idea of a company selling movies for conservatives doesn’t feel strange. It feels inevitable.


In its foray into moviemaking, The Daily Wire isn’t actually doing much moviemaking. Effectively, it’s outsourcing its work to Dallas Sonnier, a fortysomething producer behind a string of violent pulp.

In 2016, Sonnier founded the independent Texas-based studio, Cinestate, which briefly became a movie-nerd darling by churning out unapologetically gruesome grindhouse stuff. Sonnier’s biggest successes were his three movies with the director S. Craig Zahler: Bone Tomahawk, Brawl In Cell Block 99, and Dragged Across Concrete, each of them artful gore featuring murderous or racist protagonists who are afforded the privilege of fleshed-out motivations. Some see Zahler’s movies as throwbacks to the days when cinema was allowed to be seedy and ugly and immoral. Some call them movies “for the MAGA crowd.”  

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By 2020, Cinestate was humming. Then a series of allegations came to light. According to The Daily Beast’s reporting, “Cinestate had a virtual monopoly on film production in the Dallas region” and used its advantage to pressure crewmembers “into 18-hour days with no overtime pay.” Most damningly, in May 2020, Adam Donaghey—a producer on multiple Cinestate projects, including Run Hide Fight—“was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault of a minor after a woman in the Texas film scene came forward alleging he’d raped her when she was 16.” Again according to The Daily Beast, Sonnier had not only ignored “Donaghey’s predatory behavior” but had empowered him by putting him in charge of hiring and payroll. 

Run Hide Fight was originally a Cinestate production. But by late 2020, after it screened at the Venice Film Festival and went shopping for a distributor, Cinestate was dead. That’s when Sonnier partnered with Shapiro: Under the banner of a new production company, Bonfire Legend, he made a deal with The Daily Wire to distribute Run Hide Fight

Just a year earlier, when Cinestate was at its peak, Sonnier told The Hollywood Reporter that while he understood right-wing viewers “deeply,” he did not “crave a conservative audience.” He also volunteered that he didn’t vote for Trump. After partnering with The Daily Wire, though, he pivoted into an explicitly political mode. Because of “the remarkable overreach” of Hollywood’s “ruling class,” he said in a Daily Wire statement, he’d made “the tough, but prudent choice to ride further out into the Wild West to make movies on our own terms.” Sonnier’s narrative was clear: He was the one abandoning the mainstream movie business, not the other way around. 

Sonnier’s narrative was clear: He was the one abandoning the mainstream movie business, not the other way around.

In the light of the sexual assault allegations circling Cinestate, you might assume that working with Sonnier would feel unseemly for a company like The Daily Wire, which happily moralizes on behalf of lawfulness and family values. But The Daily Wire is also apparently happy to overlook the recent past. As its CEO Jeremy Boreing told The Daily Beast, anything that “may have taken place in the production of this film or another film, I don’t think it’s my business.” 

Practically, nothing much has changed. Just as he did with Cinestate, Sonnier is making low-budget genre movies. Now, he happens to be doing it for a conservative news site. 

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The Daily Wire movies have a high incidence rate of people you may be pleasantly surprised to be seeing again, or whose last names you recognize, and who might just motivate you to click play. Hello again, Thomas Jane! Hello again, Treat Williams! Hello again, the woman who played Anna on The O.C.! Terror On The Prairie co-stars Daniel Day Lewis’s kid, actor/musician/brand-ambassador Gabriel-Kane Day-Lewis. Shut In, released this February, featured the first on-screen appearance in nine years from Vincent Gallo, whose 1990s Sundance scene stardom has long since faded. 

As it turns out, Gallo has been spending some of his downtime printing merch: A peek at his personal website reveals the offer of “one-of-a-kind” T-shirts, reading things like “TRUMP 45 THE GREATEST” and “FUCK BLACK LIVES MATTER.” They retail for $666 each. 

Some of these names, like Carano and presumably Gallo, are actively thrilled to be working for The Daily Wire. Most people involved in these productions are, presumably, just looking for work. When I reach out to actors, directors, and writers involved in The Daily Wire’s productions, I get blanket rejections for interviews. A pattern repeats itself: Publicists respond with interest, then let me know their clients aren’t available when I explain that I’m writing a piece about politics and movies.  

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When I reach out to The Daily Wire directly, I get redirected to an outside publicist for vetting, then I’m told I’ll hear back. I pump out a small barrage of emails but never do hear from them again. 

What I’d want to ask is this: What is a right-wing movie?


Ben Shapiro has been pearl-clutching about show business as Democratic Party Pravda for years. In 2011, he published a book called Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How the Left Took Over Your TV. He argued that shows like Sesame Street had a liberal agenda, as reflected in the way they “tackled 'peaceful conflict resolution' in the aftermath of 9/11.” 

Anecdotally, at least, it seems true that many people who make TV and movies have vaguely-liberal personal politics. Self-avowed lefty artists talk about veganism at the Oscars and fighting the patriarchy at the Met Ball. Some documentarians make truly subversive movies highlighting structural inequity, and gain real mainstream platforms. But is the underlying ideology of Hollywood sincerely leftist? 

The hero’s journey is well represented in the history of Hollywood: A lone individual faces adversity and overcomes it with grit and determination. Your circumstances are up to your own making; you alone have the power to change your life. The American Dream is yours if you work enough. That basic story is told again and again. 

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“It’s fascinating,” K. Austin Collins, the film critic for Rolling Stone tells me, “because your interpretation of films obviously depends on where you are on the political spectrum.” He cites Black Panther, which was hailed as a liberal breakthrough for being the rare blockbuster with a Black director and a predominantly Black cast. “Then the message that the film builds towards is an Obama-era vision of, ‘[Let’s] give the kids in Oakland more computers and teach them how to code!’” He laughs, then references George W. Bush’s self-professed political philosophy: “If you’re on the left, this is compassionate conservatism.” In Black Panther, Collins says, the critique of “American imperialism comes down to one-liners. They call a white guy a colonizer.” And yet it is “quote-unquote a liberal movie because of all the reasons that it appears to be.”

“Your interpretation of films obviously depends on where you are on the political spectrum.” —K. Austin Collins

Dallas Sonnier’s movies are certainly perceived differently than Hollywood’s—because Sonnier actively encourages that perception. But what messaging is he, uniquely, providing? His movies for The Daily Wire seem interested in propagating a familiar Manichean worldview, an ultimate belief in self-reliance. If you (a good person) are targeted by school shooters (pure evil), try really hard to defeat them and it will work out in the end.

Run Hide Fight has moments of genuine empathy: Watching a student call her mother to tell her she’s under attack in her own school feels painfully real. But when Zoe, the protagonist, finally does pick up that gun to fight back, all nuance dissolves. What follows is a series of contrivances and emotional manipulations that leaves the whole thing feeling like a gruesome fantasy. Even if we assume the very best of intentions from Kyle Rankin, the director handling this sensitive subject matter, it all ends up as so much bullshit. 

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What Run Hide Fight doesn’t have, though, is any kind of cogent political argument or MAGA chest-beating. But knowing that it’s a Daily Wire release, how can you hear anything else besides Wayne La Pierre’s infamous catchphrase: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” 

So far, Sonnier’s collaboration with The Daily Wire comes off like a marketing gambit. Ads for Run Hide Fight read, “No time for wokeness when survival is on the agenda.” In an on-set photo, a Terror On The Prairie crew member happily flaps a LET’S GO BRANDON flag, a winking shot at Joe Biden. On his Instagram, Sonnier wrote a year-end message to the fans that featured the truly lovely phrase “your notes of encouragement keep us motivated as we fight the commies for the right to live our lives freely.” 

“Mainstream cinema is not leftist,” says Collins, the film critic. “But people are reacting to it as if it is.” Something as simple as increased diversity in casting “really, pointedly stirs up sentiment,” both on the left and the right. “And feelings are such a big part of this.” Hollywood studios trumpet themselves as progressive for doing something as simple as hiring directors who aren’t white men—which creates a space where Sonnier and The Daily Wire can offer their blunt pitch: Those liberals in Hollywood hate you, so give us your money instead

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As a business practice, this recalls faith-based movies. While they’ve never become industry mainstays, low-budget Christian movies (often starring Kirk Cameron and/or Greg Kinnear) regularly pop up and outperform expectations precisely by appealing to an underserved niche audience. Moving beyond any attendant ideologies, you can also see parallels in something like Shudder, a streaming platform for horror movie die-hards, or MUBI, a streaming platform for international cinema nerds. Does The Daily Wire want to build out a library and become the boutique streaming platform for the right? 

They wouldn’t be the first: In 2020, a site called Creádo—pronounced cree-ah-dough— announced itself. Founded by the entrepreneur Jason Lehr and Nick Searcy, a veteran character actor who also happens to appear in Terror On The Prairie, Creádo said it was looking to cater to “a massive underserved audience of 100 million or more Americans eager for access to content that doesn't insult their faith, family or country.” 

Creádo’s slogan: “Let Freedom Stream.”


Phelim McAleer is an ex-journalist from Northern Ireland turned prolific political filmmaker. His past credits include ObamaGate: The Movie and FBI Lovebirds, both depictions of what McAleer describes as “the Deep State plot to take down President Trump.” His current project is a feature film called My Son Hunter.

Directed by Robert Davi, a.k.a. one of the bad guys from The Goonies, it stars John James from the 80s soap Dynasty as Joe Biden and the anti-lockdown activist and actor Laurence Fox as Hunter. Gina Carano is in this one, too, playing a Secret Service agent. Financing was crowdfunded; McAleer says he raised over $2.5 million. “The media, big tech, and the establishment worked overtime to cover up the truth about the Biden Family Corruption,” McAleer wrote on the movie’s crowdfunding page. “Hollywood won't fund this movie, which is why we're counting on YOU!”

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Unlike The Daily Wire, McAleer agrees to a chat. He tells me that he’s positive there’s a large right-wing audience hungry to consume. “That’s why box office has been in decline,” he says. “Hollywood used to ignore or alienate half the population. Now they are quite open about their contempt for them. The success of the new Spider-Man is an example that there is a huge market for non-woke stories. As opposed to Woke Side Story, which flopped.” 

I ask McAleer if he’s managed to quantify the scope of demand for “non-woke stories” in some tangible way. He tells me, “If I see a story that lots of people don’t want out there, if I see a cover-up, then I know that story needs to be told. That’s my market research.” 

My Son Hunter will be an “absurdist comedy” based on a lot of “verbatim material.” Effectively, the movie is an adaptation of Hunter Biden’s laptop. It was shot in Belgrade with a local crew that was “very enthusiastic,” McAleer says. “That renegade feeling to the production, I think they appreciated. They’re very well up-to-date with world affairs, and they’re outsiders.” 

My Son Hunter’s screenwriter is Brian Godawa, a longtime collaborator of McAleer’s and the author of Chronicles of the Nephilim, an epic fantasy retelling of the Bible. Godawa tells me he was intrigued by the Hunter Biden story because “it was a fascinating example of the media’s control of information”—the way “the media twists the truth.” He pauses, sighs, and says, “For all I know, you’re gonna do that in your article.” He explains that he agreed to an interview only after reading a 2016 VICE piece on Christians in Hollywood and finding it even-handed. “If you’re as fair as [that piece], we’ll be good. If not, I’ll never talk to you again.” He laughs. “We’ll give it a shot!” 

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The poster for My Son Hunter uses photos of the real Joe and Hunter Biden, not the actors, alongside strippers in silhouette. At a glance, it feels a little cheap. In Godawa’s telling, though, it’s an earnest attempt to grapple with what is objectively juicy material. “You get this darkness,” Godawa says. “A family may be put above a country, or justice, or truth.” 

While describing his script, he sounds sympathetic to Hunter Biden. “There was this fascinating interfamily dysfunction, and it’s not uncommon in American families. You’ve got Beau Biden, who was adored, and he’s the one who dies, and Hunter is the F-up whose addiction is destroying him and possibly his whole family’s legacy. He’s a tragic character.” Godowa says he spoke with McAleer about not mocking Hunter’s addictions. “As a conservative, my view of human nature is we’re all capable of doing evil, or of falling into addiction. We all have a dark human nature. It’s all about [do you] feed the bad dog or the good dog.” 

Since Godawa is trusting me, at least so far, we chat for a bit more about what it’s like being a conservative movie-lover these days. Godawa says he’s been really put off recently by action movies starring women. “I know movies aren’t real,” he says, “but these 125-pound women are leading SEAL teams! We all like to watch a sexy woman being an assassin every once in a while. It’s OK for a change of pace. But they’re starting to suppress the male action heroes.” He says that now, partially as an act of resistance, he’s skipping the women-led action movies and if “any of the movies come up with, like, a Liam Hemsworth, I’m watching it!”


Chris Moore has been producing movies since the 90s, when he got his start on Good Will Hunting and American Pie. In the early 2000s, on the HBO reality show Project Greenlight, he gave Kyle Rankin, the future director of Run Hide Fight, his first feature directing job. I call up Moore to hear his point of view, as a veteran movie-maker, on the potentiality of conservative movies. I find him in an introspective mood. 

“The biggest thing that’s happening is that in the last five years, it’s become possible to release a movie and make zero dollars. Is there anyone left who wakes up and says, ‘I feel like watching a movie!’” People used to just go to the movies on the weekends. Now, outside of a Marvel affiliation, “who the hell knows” what will draw a crowd. With the monoculture fracturing, there’s any number of theoretical angles that would work to hook a small, steady audience. 

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Which brings him back to conservative movies. “These guys are never going to say, ‘Look, yes, we care about conservative politics, but what we’re really trying to do is lock in [an audience],” he says. “They can get [thousands of] people to storm the Capitol. Why can’t they get 2 million people to see a movie? They’re just trying it. Waiting to see. Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t.”

“The biggest thing that’s happening is that in the last five years, it’s become possible to release a movie and make zero dollars.” —Chris Moore

Personally, he’s betting no. “Nobody gives a shit enough about a movie” to pay for it because it makes “a political statement.” Hearteningly or otherwise, on some level, he says, it has to actually be good. And “80 percent of the shit that we put out, myself included, isn’t that good. It’s impossible to make really good shit. Hell, I’ve been out here trying to make stuff like Good Will Hunting or American Pie for the last 25 years. Have I done it? No! Because it’s fucking hard!” 

With Cinestate, Sonnier had a real track record. One besotted reviewer said Cinestate’s Brawl In Cell Block 99 “displays an intensity of purpose that makes it impossible to dismiss as well-executed trash.” That was Jeannette Catsoulis, a critic for famed MAGA-enemy The New York Times. Collins told me he could have seen Cinestate become a “cryptically conservative” version of indie powerhouse A24. 

Now, though, Sonnier is operating from a very different perch. Working as an explicitly political producer, can he reach out to a mass audience, or will he be stuck in his self-affirming bubble? If no one is around to argue with Sonnier’s movies, or be shocked by them, how long before they just fade away?


Before publication, I reach back out to The Daily Wire with no success. But I do, unexpectedly, hear back from Jason Lehr, president of Créado, the would-be right-wing streaming platform. In a polite email, he apologizes for not having gotten back to me sooner and explains that it’s because Créado has been busy totally re-imagining what they are going to be as a company.

“Conservative investors were the target, but none of them want to jump on board even though we have the only protected technology being built on the market,” he writes. “Many were afraid of getting involved and/or canceled themselves for doing so. Créado will be repositioning back to where we were from the beginning, which is to bring back entertainment as the escape from our daily lives.” 

Soon, he says, Créado will be back with “brand films and adjusted messaging to leave out politics altogether, because honestly, the country is tired of politics in everything we do.”


Tagged:

movies, Ben Shapiro, gina carano, The Daily Wire, Creado, Cinestate, Dallas Sonnier, Phelim McAleer, Brian Godawa

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