Dawg Fight, director Billy Corben’s new film about the backyard bare-knuckle fight scene, debuts on Netflix this weekend. But for Corben and his producing partner Alfred Spellman, best known for their 2006 doc Cocaine Cowboys, an online bow proved the right fit for their particular brand of street-smart filmmaking.
“As we started looking at how we wanted to release it, theatrical was just not a very appealing option,” says Spellman, who along with Corben founded their Rakontur banner in 2000. Explains Corben, “The whole purpose of this subculture is these guys uploading this footage to the Internet. So the audience for this type of content is already on line — the gamer crowd, the fight fan crowd. So it seemed just kind of obvious to go where they were.”
Since first meeting up in high school more than 15 years ago, Corben and Spellman have forged a unique career by focusing on what Corben admits is often “more pulpy, pop-culture-oriented subject matter” and then riding the successive waves through which such movies have been delivered to eager audiences. “We’ve watched the business shift now through four incarnations,” says Spellman. “We started out going to Sundance. At Sundance, we realized your audience is the seven or eight people who are the acquisition execs. And then we went through the DVD boom, catching the last wave with Cocaine Cowboys. After the recession and the technological upheaval, we did a lot of TV commissions — we’ve done now three 30 for 30s for ESPN and a four-hour miniseries for VH1.” And with Dawg Fight, they’ve moved on to streaming-on-demand. “We’ve kind of been early adopters in figuring out new media trends, some that work out and some that don’t,” adds Corben.
As the two tell it, it all began when they met in ninth grade, in a middle-school class on TV production when a teacher urged them to work together. As a result, at age 15, they formed their first production company to make short films. When both moved on to the University of Miami, they heard of a case in Gainesville, Fla. about a stripper who alleged she was had been raped at a University of Florida fraternity house. It was right around the time that the low-budget, shot-on-video The Blair Witch Project had hit theaters, and so they were inspired to use digital video, as well as videotape clips of the assault, to assemble Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001.
At the time, Michael Mann was working on his Miami Vice feature. And Scarface’s Tony Montana had become a cultural icon. “We were trying to find an iconic story to tell, and we realized we could tell the story of growing up in Miami in the 1980s during the cocaine cowboy boom. With the benefit of 25 years of hindsight, we thought we could tell the real Scarface,” Spellman recounts. Their Sundance success notwithstanding, they couldn’t find any financing. “We thought we were so cool because we could get so many meetings,” laughs Corben. “But nobody got it. We couldn’t get any industry financing or support prior to the start of production.”
Although they hadn’t studied documentary filmmaking in school, that early success with non-fiction filmmaking gave them a direction moving forward. Rather than move to New York or L.A., they decided to return to their hometown of Miami. “We wanted to tell stories from here. There were really no homegrown storytellers here,” says Spellman.
Persevering, they managed to complete Cocaine Cowboys, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006. They got just two offers for a theatrical release, opting to go with Magnolia Pictures because it had its own home video distribution and they sensed the movie would have a long shelf-life on DVD, which proved to be the case.
Released in a dozen theaters, the movie grossed just $150,000 theatrically. Meanwhile, though, Corben discovered that pirated copies of the movie were a hot commodity. Even before Cowboyswas released, they discovered a bootleg version, bought at a local flea market, was playing on a continual loop in one Miami Gardens barber shop. Instead of deciding to track down the pirates or sue for illegal use of the film, they decided to send a crew out to shoot a piece for a YouTube about how Cowboys had become a street phenomenon. And when, in January, 2007, the movie did come out on home video, it kept selling and selling — in part because it wasn’t marketed as a doc but as a gangster movie which Best Buy promoted right beside titles like mainstream action fare like Con Air and Casino Royale.
Cowboys’ success also helped them define the genre in which they were working, which they dubbed “pop docs.” “Everyone has their own lane in the doc world,” Spellman said. “Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock are the stars of their docs. Then, there are more traditional PBS docs. But we’re creating non-fiction that appeals to a younger audience.”
Additionally, Cowboys gave them the credibility to infiltrate the world of Dawg Fight, a process that began about five years ago as they began tracking backyard fight promoters like Kimbo Slice, who introduced the scene, and Dhafir “Dada 5000” Harris who became its Don King. “It was an incredible local story,” says Corben. “Kimbo Slice had become a sensation, inventing this business model of fighting in the backyard, uploading the footage to the web, inspiring a new generation of young people to emulate this model. Cocaine Cowboys and the ESPN 30 for 30movies we’ve done gave us the bona fides as far as access was concerned. Also, these guys were doing this to get noticed. Even though it’s an underground, illegal subculture, the whole purpose of doing it is to get discovered and make a name. It wasn’t a question of ‘Who are these white boys with a camera?’ We were really warmly embraced there.”