One of the most exciting contenders for tomorrow’s Emmy Award nominations is VH1’s documentary series The Tanning of America: One Nation Under Hip Hop.
Based on Steve Stoute’s book, the series acutely and aptly highlights what Stoute describes as the “line from Sedgwick Ave. to Pennsylvania Ave.” In other words, if it wasn’t for the Bronx (Uptown baby!”), this President Barack Obama stuff probably never would be goin’ on. The docu-series features interviews with the likes of Rick Rubin, Nas, Diddy, Mariah Carey, fashion designer and Harlem icon Dapper Dan, filmmaker Brett Ratner, and Sen. Cory Booker (among many others), and it proves—if it wasn’t already clear—that rap culture is a global culture with an incredible, phenomenal, ever-evolving impact.
Stoute teamed up with Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman (the duo behind Cocaine Cowboys) for the series, and the results were powerful. Stoute hoped that they’d use the same “insight and specificity” he’d seen in their 2006 critically acclaimed documentary, and apply their style to his ideas on “the tanning of America.” He was not disappointed.
Stoute has high hopes that the culture will continue to rise, even as it holds onto its roots. An Emmy nomination is certainly one way to increase the visibility. And Stoute isn’t afraid to say that he wants The Tanning of America to get that recognition, not only for himself but for an entire generation that’s contributed to the movement.
I’m hopeful for a nomination because it would send a strong message that—what we’ve all been a part of over the last twenty to twenty-five years—has helped shape the world.”
Miami’s most successful and well-known filmmaking crew is about to kick things up a notch.
Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman, founders of the media studio rakontur, made their initial media splash in 2001, when their controversial documentary Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, an exploration of a purported rape, premiered at the Sundance International Film Festival and made the cover of the New York Post.
Then came Cocaine Cowboys in 2006, a recounting of the early-1980s South Florida drug wars that convincingly argued that the backbone of Miami’s infrastructure was built on the cocaine trade.
That film earned Corben and Spellman, whose headquarters are housed in South Beach, a devoted cult following that grew with each successive film (Limelight, Square Grouper, The U, Broke).
“The energy that they have is infectious, and it comes across in their movies,” says Connor Schell, vice president of production for ESPN Films, which aired The U and Broke. “Their style is so frenetic, and their movies have such an interesting pace that when Billy pitched us on how they wanted to do The U [originally titled Hurricane Season], we bought into it immediately. We’ve had a great relationship with them. Their style is very innovative, and we’re talking to them about collaborating on another documentary now.”
Brad Abramson, vice president of original programming for VH1, says he was impressed by Corben and Spellman when they lobbied to direct the four-part miniseries The Tanning of America: One Nation Under Hip-Hop, which aired in February.
“They knew an incredible amount about hip hop for a couple of white Jewish kids from Miami,” Abramson says. “They blew us away with their knowledge of all the details and their love of the culture. They are a boutique company: They work on one project at a time and give it their all. We were aware of them from the Cocaine Cowboys days. They are the kings of the hidden anecdote. They know how to find just the right nugget to bring out.”
“Filmmaking is like a band,” Spellman says. “Everyone has to play their own instrument and their own role in making a film. David has been editing our docs. Billy and I have a great partnership because we play off each other’s strengths. He directs, and I produce. When you look at other filmmaking teams, they all have a certain rapport. I think we’ve developed our own rhythm and style. We make a pretty formidable team.”
Here is a most unusual kind of haven in Miami — one where the business of movies, the craft of filmmaking and the love of cinema all intersect. No wonder they want to keep the location quiet.
Here, too, is something you won’t find anywhere else in South Florida: A multimedia company with a decade’s worth of work that has earned national attention; several intriguing projects in the pipeline (including what is likely to be their most commercial film to date); and absolutely no plans to ever relocate.
The bond between Corben, Spellman and Cypkin — who are all 33, became friends at Highland Oaks Middle School, made their first short film in high school and co-founded rakontur in 2001 — has grown stronger with each of their successes.
“Billy and Alfred have a strong Miami sensibility: Their movies are very redolent of that city,” says Eamonn Bowles, president of Magnolia Pictures, which has distributed several of rakontur’s films theatrically and on DVD. “ Cocaine Cowboys did an amazing job of soaking up the color and culture and details of that era. But their greatest attribute is a nose for an interesting story. Every film they’ve done has had jaw-dropping aspects to it. They make you say ‘Whaaat?’ And they keep getting better as filmmakers. The leap from Raw Deal to Cocaine Cowboys was incredible, and they’ve only improved since then.”
Designer Calvin Klein was spotted at Bella Rose’s newest weekly party, Bella Donna, this past Saturday night in South Beach.
The nightclub also happens to be owned by Cocaine Cowboys producers Alfred Spellman and Billy Corben, along with partner Keith Paciello (brother of South Beach’s original badboy and Liquid owner, Chris Paciello).
The fashion designer arrived at the club just past midnight, looking very casual sporting a simple short sleeved white t-shirt, dark jeans, eyeglasses and a touseled ‘do. Klein was accompanied by a male friend and chilled with Bella Donna host, Jose “Jochy” Ortiz. Klein managed to dodge paparazzi lenses but he was caught busting a move to the sounds of DJ Troy Kurtz.
Rakontur Films’ Marketing Strategy
Miami documentary filmmakers Rakontur use a street-smart marketing strategy that enlists viewers as promoters
Typically clad in cargo shorts and flip-flops, 30-year-olds Alfred Spellman and Billy Corben look easy to dismiss. But amid widespread angst for content makers, their Miami production house, Rakontur Films, has become a case study in successful viral marketing.
The studio’s revenue, which includes DVD sales and production contracts, has doubled annually for the past three years. It just released the sequel to its 2006 indie hit Cocaine Cowboys, and it has inked creative deals with ESPN Films and Warner Brothers TV for a Cowboys HBO series. And the scrappy startup has done it with a total staff of five, including themselves. “They’ve created a whole new audience: an alternative, youth-leaning, nonfiction-seeking core,” says Tom Quinn, senior vice-president of Magnolia Pictures, which distributed the Cowboys series.
Rakontur’s ethos: Keep hustling, be lean and opportunistic, be constantly interactive and digital, be random, provoke, and offend. All along, make sure your audience feels personally invested in your brand. Writ large, this strategy evinces the new marketing order.
For starters, the pals are more keen to cite blogger Jeff Jarvis and marketer Seth Godin than the likes of Kubrick or Spielberg. “This is about permission marketing, people actually seeking you out and asking to be involved,” says Spellman. Corben, for one, responds to every fan e-mail and Facebook message he receives—even if he has to wade through hundreds a day. They both also dutifully Twitter and Flickr their daily filmmaking adventures. It’s a bit like The Truman Show.
It all started in Miami in 1993, when the two ninth-graders staged a hostile takeover of their school’s TV newscast, a feat that catapulted them out of dorkdom and, says Corben, “marked the dawn of our viral tendencies.” A year later, the duo had Corben’s grandmother drive them downtown to sell the school board on a short film about a high school student’s HIV test. By the film’s November 1994 premier, the boys were in the papers and getting their cheeks pinched at national teaching confabs. Six years later, they were the youngest filmmakers ever to premier at the Sundance Film Festival, with their documentary Raw Deal: A Question of Consent. The controversial picture explored an alleged rape at a university frat house.
Then came Cocaine Cowboys, a breathless look at the violent drug-running era that shaped modern Miami. Three months before its release, Spellman and Corben learned that pirated DVDs were being hawked at an inner-city Miami flea market. They showed up with a camera crew and became impressed with how bootleggers had already made Cocaine Cowboys a phenomenon everywhere from barbershops to corner bodegas. “We asked ourselves, why fight it?” recounts Corben. “We couldn’t have bought that kind of cred.”
Corben and Spellman turned their colorful footage into a series on YouTube, which drew more than a million views. Soon, superstars such as Janet Jackson and rap artist Pharrell Williams got in touch; the latter is now collaborating with them on an animated series for cable television. Rakontur channeled the buzz into a massive MySpace and Web outreach effort, plying their twentysomething-heavy fan base with gonzo stunts.
When a Rakontur studio was burglarized last year, the filmmakers posted a video of the hilariously inept thieves. Fans blasted out the link, and megaportal gizmodo.com turned it into a national viral phenomenon. The burglar’s father was so embarrassed that he turned in his daughter. The upshot: Free press for Rakontur—and a surge in fans visiting their Web site to preview their film and buy merchandise. For an encore, they posted instructions on how to print counterfeit parking receipts, partly out of annoyance at official nonchalance toward Miami Beach’s parking problem. Spellman ended up on the front of The Miami Herald—just as he was opening a new South Beach club that doubled as a Rakontur fan base. “It pays to put your life out there,” he says.
The two also use the Web to guide hard business decisions. A lot of hits from Detroit, for example, would put that city high on the list for any limited theatrical release, or when scheduling a tour for the coffee-table book they’re now doing with MTV Books. Cocaine Cowboys II, the filmmakers point out, was the result of hundreds of fan e-mails about one character in the first movie. “Why start from scratch?” asks Corben.
Now they’re filming a documentary for ESPN on the storied University of Miami Hurricanes football franchise. Production is so lean that Spellman confesses his dog Kaya might again be used to pad the closing credits.
The 50 Most Influential People in Miami
Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman: The Moviemakers
For all the politicians and well-meaning philanthropists on this list, none has the audacity to reveal as much about the city as Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman.
The filmmakers and Miami natives sent shockwaves through the 305 last fall with their critically acclaimed documentary Cocaine Cowboys, which traced the drug trafficking in Miami in the 1970s and ’80s. But it wasn’t just the warring drug lords or the sheer glee with which they rolled around in their cocaine and cash that made the tightly paced film so intriguing.
It was also the revelations that (like it or not) many of the high-rise buildings that fill the Miami skyline were funded with drug money, and that so much blood was spilled during these so-called “Cocaine Wars” that Time magazine once called the city “Paradise Lost.” Corben (who directs) and Spellman (who produces) received the Florida Film Critics Circle’s Golden Orange award for their efforts on this and Raw Deal: A Question of Consent, about a 1999 alleged rape at the University of Florida. That film won the duo a Special Jury Award at the Miami International Film Festival in 2002.
For a world that’s just as cutthroat but not quite as illegal — the nightclub scene — Corben and Spellman recently completely Clubland, which chronicles the opening of the Mokaï Lounge in South Beach. The team is currently in production on Cocaine Cowboys II: The Godmother Returns.
Casting a mirror on Miami is undoubtedly a trying yet intrinsically fun enterprise, as a sordid past (and present) full of sex, drugs, back-stabbing and more drugs can’t help but reveal unpleasant truths. The fact that we enjoy the spoils of such chaotic riches on a daily basis makes the steamy nastiness of it all even more enticing.
February 7, 2007
Miami Splice: Local filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman document stories about the seedy side of Florida
By: Barbara Lester
Last fall, when Miami filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman released the feature-length documentary Cocaine Cowboys in theaters, bootleg copies of the film hit the streets almost immediately. Instead of running home and crying to their distributors, they took action.
They posted a short-film series, Streets of Miami: The “Cocaine Cowboys” Phenomenon, about the bootlegging phenomenon on YouTube. In the series, the filmmakers confront bootleggers at the Carol City Flea Market. They also talk about the movie, which focuses on Miami’s wild drug era of the mid-1970s, with a few of the Magic City’s biggest hip-hop stars, including Pitbull and Trick Daddy.
"Yo, you’ve got to see this movie," says Pitbull, after admitting he, like several of the interview subjects, watched an illegal copy of it. "If you ain’t seen Cocaine Cowboys, you don’t know nothing about Miami. It’s better than Scarface." Regardless how they saw it, these rappers readily agreed to promote the film on YouTube.
"I can’t walk up to the guy at the Carol City Flea Market, who paid $5 — of which thousands were sold, by the way — and say, ‘Give me my dollar,’ " says Corben, who directs the team’s films. "You have to devise a new business model. … Embrace your audience."
His producing partner agrees. “You can’t fight it. You have to accept the change,” says Spellman, who readily admits to downloading movies from BitTorrent, the free peer-to-peer file-sharing network. “Wayne Gretzky said, ‘I don’t skate to where the puck is; I skate to where the puck is going to be.’ You’re not going to roll things back. People are downloading movies on BitTorrent.”
Now that Cocaine Cowboys was officially — and legally — released on DVD Jan. 23, everyone can watch this fascinating documentary, which crystallizes Miami’s drug past with great perspective and thorough hindsight. Although they have made their names in film, the 28-year-olds, who have been working together on movie projects since they were in the ninth grade at Highland Oaks Middle School in North Miami Beach, think they have found a new approach for their latest project, a short-film series titled Clubland, and are embracing new media.
MIAMI - When Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman learned their new documentary was a top seller at a Miami flea market, they found themselves both surprised and confused - especially since the film hadn’t even been released in theaters yet.
But instead of contacting an attorney, the 28-year-old Miami-natives decided to embrace the positive reaction and interview the flea market vendors on camera.
Between bootleg DVDs and strong word-of-mouth, “Cocaine Cowboys” - named for a term made popular by the media in the ’70s and ’80s - had already become an underground hit in Miami before its theatrical release Friday. The video of the flea market vendors can be found online, along with footage from a barber shop that shows the movie all day for its customers and interviews with hip-hop artists who have seen the film.
"Yes, it’s our copyrighted material, and people are bootlegging it and selling it and making money, and we’re not," said Corben, the director. "So what are you going to do about that? How do you stop it? It’s like a phenomenon."
MIAMI’S VICE DECADE
Local Filmmakers Alfred Spellman and Billy Corben investigate South Florida’s glamorous and violent ’80s in their documentary Cocaine Cowboys
By Tristram Korten
Cocaine is on a comeback, says Alfred Spellman. Ask and he’ll tell you that the price of a kilo today is “cheaper than it has ever been.” With an academic’s command of the facts, he’ll recite the figures for you. “In the late 1970s, early 1980s, cocaine was going for $50,000 to $60,000 a kilo,” he says. “Today it costs $19,000 to $20,000.”
So how does a relatively clean-cut kid (he’s 27) with no arrest record know so much about the mighty yeyo, the economic engine of backwater republics throughout the Caribbean and South America and scourge of border guards from El Paso to Key West? Well, Spellman, a producer, and his partner, Billy Corben, a director, spent the last two years studying the matter—specifically the impact it had on their hometown, Miami.
On July 11th, 1979, when Spellman and Corben were barely a year old, a party-supply van pulled into the parking lot at Dadeland Mall. Two drug-dealer hit men armed with automatic weapons stepped out and unleashed a barrage of bullets at their target in the Crown Liquor store. The shots fired that day would reverberate for decades to come, helping label Miami the free-fire zone of the cocaine-fueled 1980s and ultimately haunt the two young filmmakers.
That firefight ushered in an era of high glamour and excess married to a brutality rarely seen outside a war zone. The drug of the go-go ’80s spawned a riotous nightlife in pre-South Beach Miami, defined by the members-only Mutiny Club in Coconut Grove’s Mutiny Hotel. A cascade of characters circulated through the hotel’s lobby, bar and opulent theme rooms, such as the Egyptian Room. The Latin-American dopers, the lawyers who protected them, the cops who chased them and the spies who observed them all partied in the Mutiny.
And it was tales of those days that prompted the filmmaking team to set out and discover if Miami was truly the town that cocaine built. The result of their effort is the documentary film Cocaine Cowboys, which they hope definitively answers that question.