Moving Pictures
Feb 18, 2021, 06:28AM

Reflections of a Rebeller

On Run Hide Fight (2020) and the late Rebeller Media.

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It is unusual to see a film premiere with only five men dressed in tuxedos, who were involved in its distribution at the last minute. These men aren’t in the big business of filmmaking, though their roots are in Hollywood, with writing, producing, and acting credits. One even wrote a book about it. Yet they are at the forefront of politics, looking to compete against a homogenous culture that has no use for them. If they don’t want your movie, they believed, then go your own way with us.

That’s what happened to Run Hide Fight, the first film distributed by The Daily Wire, a conservative news website that has recently ventured into entertainment. The film is compared to Die Hard, but instead of a giant skyscraper, it’s a teenager during a school shooting. It adds a spin to a very sensitive topic that can only ever be produced in America. It’s easy to think that The Daily Wire, a publication whose podcast hosts make no apologies for the 2nd Amendment, would be the only person finding some appeal to the whole show and exploiting it for their gain. But having written for the production company that would have released the film, I feel that the matter is more complex than it seems.

Run Hide Fight is less of a product of The Daily Wire, whose merchandise includes flasks containing the phrase ‘leftist tears.’ It’s the product of Cinestate, a Texas-based production studio headed by Dallas Sonnier, with efforts under their belt like Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and Dragged Across Concrete, all of which were directed by S Craig Zahler. More specifically, it was a product of Rebeller, now looked back as a footnote of independent filmmaking and entertainment journalism.   

As it currently ceases to exist, Rebeller is less recognizable to this day as a production subsidiary of Cinestate, but for the website containing its name. To think of it as either exclusively a website or a production label would be underestimating its original intentions. It combined the studio with a community hub of passionate genre fans and a site being its front door to new film features. It had its moment in the sun, and to pretend it never happened, would be to ignore the irrational rigidity within film culture that made them its black sheep.  


Cinestate ventured into publishing, following the ownership of Fangoria, a beloved horror movie magazine. It had also acquired Birth Movies Death, a geek website that was initially owned by Alamo Drafthouse, months before its demise. Rebeller was its most original property, launched in December 2019 with Sonny Bunch being its sole editor, having worked at another conservative news site The Washington Free Beacon writing movie reviews. Bunch had the ambition to make Rebeller the non-liberal version of The Dissolve, a popular movie webzine that Pitchfork Media briefly ran for two years that had intriguing and engaging in-depth writing film critics sought to emulate.  As its mission statement stated:

“REBELLER will produce movies by these individualistic voices. REBELLER will be the champion of Outlaw Cinema, the home for those who have tired of Big Hollywood’s yoke and the demands of the major studios. REBELLER will bring to your theaters the movies that you crave but have been relegated to streaming services and Video On Demand.”  

Much of their articles specialized on genre cinema, and that was Rebeller’s forte. Since it was a production company, movie reviews of new releases were kept to a minimum. Instead, eclectic essays were written about Michael Mann’s Manhunter, an oral history on the 1990s Western Tombstone was run and themed weeks were devoted to Clint Eastwood and John Milius. Words were penned about costumes, including a profile of designer Marilyn Vance, who made outfits for The Untouchables.  There's even an article claiming that Cats qualifies as Outlaw Cinema canon.

 It brought people who had showbiz experience into the site. Most prolific of these were John McNaughton, director of Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer, Michael Biehn who played Kyle Reese in The Terminator, and Fred Raskin, the editor of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, who penned a tribute to Quentin Tarantino’s longtime collaborator Sally Menkin. Other notable contributors include Matt Labash, the conservative journalist previously at The Weekly Standard, Bridget Phetasy, and a prolific commenter called Zodiac Motherfucker, writing in caps lock on why we need to bring back “ownage” to the movies. 

Bunch commissioned me to do a retrospective on the protests surrounding Cruising, the William Friedkin film with Al Pacino going undercover in Greenwich Village’s S&M scene. It fit the Rebeller template of provocative essays about provocative movies. (That essay has since been republished on Quillette). It motivated me to have a further voice in and expand to many topics as broadly as possible. I wrote about video stores, why European film critics preferred Joker over the Americans, the journey to movie theaters during pandemics, collecting movie magazines, Mark Wahlberg, and had a regular column about movies that scored an F on CinemaScore. While those were outside of the Outlaw Cinema oeuvre, it was in line with the passion of being an idiosyncratic film fan.  

Given the scarce economic incentives of online writing, my copy has paid much better than other sites I have written for. That way, Sonnier and Bunch were looking for an audience who were more than devoted to the content, rather than farm it from randos who would express outrage about its existence. Hence a paywall was implemented on all its writing. If people weren’t interested in the intellectual nature of talking about the movies they love, they might as well rest on the politically incorrect battle cries that bother a lot of progressives in the film industry. 


Film enthusiasts on Twitter made Rebeller a punchline for being juvenile and lacking any responsibility for whatever they published. Once it went live, New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie tweeted that it was made for “MAGA chuds''. Nathan E Smith, a freelance writer, baselessly alleged that it was an ‘alt-right’ website that was funded by the CIA. Writers were shamed for even publishing anything there and receiving money. The most notable detractor was Josh Goldbloom, a founder of the Cinepocalypse, a local horror film festival, who made a parody of the website cleverly called Rebellerer, featuring images of Ben Shapiro and Mel Gibson. Rebeller almost shares the same name as Rebel Media, the Canadian right-wing news outlet, so it made the country’s contingent of Film Twitter more uncomfortable. 

The site’s unapologetic nature caused some headaches among its contributors. Outlaw Vern, a film blogger specializing in action movies, ended his relationship because he felt like it would be a liability to his profile. “I just think the whole thing is built on the Cinestate approach of provoking offense and then explaining why actually if you think about it maybe it’s not offensive,” he adds on his website. “That’s not my thing.” Sheila O’Malley, another distinguished film critic, briefly contributed about the costumes in Walter Hill movies before a Rebeller reader posted a misogynist comment on her blog and was reminded of a rowdy segment of its audience. 

Some of their articles bordered on shameless while others tend to drift away from cinema entirely.  There was a piece lamenting the death of the ‘bro’ comedy, echoing Todd Phillips’s comments that he distanced himself from comedy because it got too woke. But one - headlined "The United States of Karen" - about the Central Park scuffle between Amy Cooper and a birdwatcher named Christian Cooper was its most controversial moment, with only a Simpsons reference to suffice. In the article’s defense, it did claim and examined how both Coopers are in the wrong and there are bad consequences for their actions. But if it had little to do with pop culture, it accommodates that with the site’s taste for irreverence. Because of this, some had unsubscribed, and Bunch regretted running the article.

Another highlight of Rebeller’s warrior schtick was picking up They Called Me Wyatt, a book by Natasha Tynes, who bizarrely tweeted about a train employee eating on the job, resulting in the dropping of the book from her previous publisher. Giving her another chance after a social media tirade and reviving the book was meant to be a blow against cancel culture.  “The long and the short of it was this,” it added in its newsletter. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Cinestate’s reputation was damaged in June 2020, following revelations there was sexual harassment on-set involving one of its producers Adam Donaghey, with Sonnier accused of doing nothing to curb it, resulting in the folding of Rebeller. Scott Tobias wrote in The Ringer, upon its establishment, that it was an “unsafe safe space.” He didn’t realize that in the months to come, it was literal. For readers of Fangoria and Birth Movies Death, being in the same stable as Rebeller was particularly uneasy, at least for their readers, who often leaned progressive. Fangoria had a horror community with a progressive slant, while Birth Movies Death sometimes ran features that leaned left. After The Daily Beast’s sexual assault expose (which was corroborated by Goldbloom), the two severed ties from the company. Rebeller closed for good, with all its pages gone and left unarchived.  

Despite this, I felt that Rebeller succeeded in its mission as a no holds barred webzine that offered an antidote to the dumb insularity of pop culture commentary seeking for a problematic aspect of a movie and expounds that for a well-educated audience. One of its earliest articles was from actor Fred Williamson, about moving up in the movie business and the need for Hollywood to be colorblind. And for every writeup about toxic masculinity on television, you’ll find at Slate, it had pieces from S Craig Zahler about obscure comic books that influenced his filmmaking. While the execution sometimes felt clunky in the six months of its life, it had more benefits that outweigh the cons of running a movie website now, one being that even when it loses money (as it turns out it had at the beginning of a pandemic), it wouldn’t matter in the long run, since Cinestate is mainly known for producing movies.

There were two faces Rebeller had as a film publication, both of which Bunch was a natural at. The first was a space for elite-quality writing that could change the way one can approach the movies. The other was an entity interested in pushing back against their opponents. Whether it’s the big studios and their tentpole franchises, or the critics encouraging them because they had a woke message. It proved to be a two-way street and it seemed difficult to reconcile these ideas. Because of that, their enemies being more vocal, no matter how many subscribers they have in their arsenal and how non-toxic and apolitical most of their content was. For them, much of their readers came from the conservative side as Bunch and Ben Shapiro, equipped with film tastes that didn’t go beyond Quentin Tarantino. However, this tends to polarize, rather than allowing us to unite in the joy of watching movies. Readers were interested in Rebeller because they feel that critics don’t speak for them, and are instead, focused on pushing an agenda they didn’t need to read. Do they need someone from The New York Times to claim that it wasn't OK for men to not be interested in Greta Gerwig’s Little Women?  Or that First Man was somehow a work of right-wing propaganda? They prefer people who take the lifestyle of watching movies seriously, without insisting that knee-jerk activism interferes with how they’re supposed to view it.   


It’s no surprise that Run Hide Fight is now picked up by The Daily Wire, considering how much Ben Shapiro promoted the website and encouraged his followers to subscribe to the articles and look out for their products. I have yet to see Run Hide Fight, but it’s a litmus test for both the movie and its new distributor: have they got something new on the table that because of the circumstances, they have yet to prove, or is this material to merely to flatter the viewers’ senses? Will this indeed be the introduction of ‘outlaw cinema’ or will it become a partisan effort like God’s Not Dead? If Daily Wire CEO Jeremy Boreing’s words are any indication, it can go either way. “This is a gut-wrenching film that does not offer easy talking points,” Boreing proclaims. “Which is why liberal Hollywood executives have refused to distribute it.”

Cinestate’s politics were often and needlessly scrutinized by the film community. Dragged Across Concrete had several scenes where the characters complain about political correctness, while Brawl in Cell Block 99 put abortion as its stakes with a Korean doctor doing the operation. The discussion surrounding them was messy. Reviews and profiles often accusing the studio of being a crypto-fascist troll felt like ideological gotchas, often missing the points and refusing to engage with its form. Still, those films managed to get acclaim from some film critics, who were otherwise progressive and were deemed the most provocative releases of its decade, allowing great publicity for Cinestate as an emerging film company to look out for and not to be messed with.    

The goodwill Cinestate and Sonnier earned for producing S Craig Zahler’s films and contributing to the local Texas landscape in Texas were valuable, but it was gaining good critical notoriety that allowed them to smoothly pursue artistic endeavors that were otherwise edgy. Run Hide Fight was widely panned by critics when it premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival, in contrast to the reaction towards Zahler’s movies. But the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes shows that the reaction will ultimately be divided, if artificially so. It demonstrates that convincing political opponents in your community are not effective in getting ahead of the culture. It’s better to play their games when they hurt you back.   

After many fiascos, it’s tempting to cynically dismiss this saga entirely on its face. But that would ignore the fact The Daily Wire set a precedent in not publishing the names and images of mass shooters. Or that during the production of Run Hide Fight, Sonnier and the crew will spend a minute of prayer before filming and had moderate stances on gun control (“I want people to be able to hunt. I also think it’s absurd that we have high-capacity magazines”). Arts and politics have a tricky relationship that when it intensifies to this day, up to the point where it interferes with life. Once moviegoing becomes politicized, it loses the peace and innocence associated with it.

Rebeller wasn’t a reactionary outfit, and neither Sonnier nor Bunch are easy to ideologically define (Bunch is a conservative Never Trumper at The Bulwark) as such for a label to make any sense. I once called Cinestate the A24 for the Intellectual Dark Web, primarily because it was a distributor that was heterodox, rather than stridently conservative. But it didn’t have any notable impact, because no one was willing to allow that to happen and the publication was cocooned. And if Run Hide Fight - a title taken from a three-word slogan to survive a mass shooting - has any other meaning, it might be apt to describe Cinestate’s journey so far.


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