Billy Corben Pioneers the 'Pop Doc'
by bill kearney
If you’re expecting David Attenborough’s thoughtful narration or Ken Burns’s slow pans over sooty Civil War veterans when watching a Billy Corben documentary, you’ll be disappointed. And that’s a good thing, as far as Corben sees it. That’s because he, along with his Rakontur films producer Alfred Spellman and editor David Cypkin, has pioneered a form of documentary filmmaking that attracts more than just the PBS demographic. Corben calls his films “pop docs,” and they have turned out to be ratings gold for some of cable TV’s most esteemed networks. “We do something much pulpier and much more pop-culture [than the traditional documentary],” Corben says from Rakontur’s Lincoln Road office. Yet there’s still a social message. “That’s almost unavoidable—it’s about real life for real people. We tend to choose subjects [that are] accessible to a more general audience. As it turns out, a younger audience with Cocaine Cowboys [Corben’s breakout 2006 film about Miami’s ’70s and ’80s drug trade].”
That niche was made abundantly clear a few years back when billionaire Mark Cuban, co-owner of Rakontur distributor Magnolia Pictures, walked down the aisle of his Dallas Mavericks team plane and saw “almost everybody” watching Cocaine Cowboys on their DVD players. “He’s like, ‘Is that Cocaine Cowboys? That’s one of our movies!’” explains Corben. “And they [the players] are all like, ‘Oh, sorry, dude, I got the bootleg.’” By the same logic, Magnolia rather brilliantly convinced Best Buy to place the documentary in the Action section next to films such as Crimson Tide, rather than in the Special Interest section next to Pilates videos. Showtime counts Cocaine Cowboys as its most successful doc ever and constantly airs a roster of other Rakontur films such as Cocaine Cowboys 2, Square Grouper, and Limelight.
The pop-doc phenomenon has garnered Corben some fans in high places, including music artists such as Pharrell Williams and Miami-raised Pitbull. During ESPN’s 30 for 30 premiere of Broke, in which Corben explored the ruinous financial lives of professional athletes, LeBron James tweeted, “Everyone in sports, doesn’t matter if u play or not. Associated with it in some form or another should be watching ESPN #30for30 ‘BROKE.’” Twitter erupted. “We had nearly doubled the [media] impressions of the next three or four shows combined,” notes Corben. “If you were tweeting about television that night, by and large you were tweeting about Broke.”
Of the fans, Corben says, “You know what it is? It’s a culture. It’s a culture that is about keeping it real, which is not just a hip-hop mantra—it’s a mantra for a generation who have rejected bullshit reality television, and people who are living their lives out in the open.”
The latest Rakontur project again returns to Miami for its grist. Dawg Fight, due for distribution this fall, is Corben’s exploration of illegal and often brutal backyard prizefighting in West Perrine, the sprawling expanse of low-end tropical suburbia off US 1 in southwest Miami-Dade County. Corben and his team gained the trust of the community, eventually filming four fight days over a year and a half. What they captured and uncovered is—in typical Corben form—as raw as it gets. The protagonist, Dada 5000, a hulking yet baby-faced neighborhood legend, turns his mother’s trodden backyard into a moneymaking combat arena. Subplots follow fighters, some from derailed lives just out of prison, others chasing a dream of professional MMA fighting. A Greek chorus of enthralled local women comment on each fight; girlfriends chastise defeated boyfriends. It’s by far Corben’s most pathos-laden film yet. “The fact that there is a subculture of people who believe their greatest opportunity is beating the shit out of someone in an illegal fight in a backyard has its own inherent kind of tragic element,” Corben says. “We tell the story, and the audience deals with the anthropological elements of it and asks the bigger questions.”
Corben’s other focus these days is finishing The Tanning of America, a doc miniseries for VH1 based on a book of the same name by Steve Stoute.
An admitted news junky, Corben sees documentary filmmaking as a “need to contribute to history and a conversation. It’s the creative interpretation of reality, which is exactly what a history book is. I think it’s so much more fulfilling to mine these real stories and these real people and to preserve them.”
And with all this success, he’s staying in Miami. “We didn’t want to be two more schmucks peddling our wares in New York or Los Angeles. We thought that branding the company as Miami-based would be an asset, and it paid off.”
Now that Rakontur has moved the needle in the world of documentary, what’s next?
“As Alfred [Spellman] says, we would love to be the Stephen King of the doc world, where our projects get set up as dramatic works.” You can bet Miami will be watching.
photography by gary james
Cover shoot: Behind the scenes with Pitbull for the October 2014 issue of Ocean Drive magazine.