The Insight on Cocaine Cowboys
by gaspar gonzalez
It’s late afternoon and the offices of Rakontur are filled with the rat-tat-tat chatter of principals Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman. The director/producer team behind the Cocaine Cowboys phenomenon has just moved into new digs, a picturesque 1927 Mediterranean on upper Alton Road, and, save for a couple of movie posters and the leather sectional in the living room-turned-reception area, the space is pretty bare. In the half-empty room, their rapid-fire banter pops like an AK-47 in the hands of one of their celluloid protagonists. “Cuban coffee?” Spellman offers a visitor, before pouring himself a shot. “How many projects have we got going on now?” asks Corben. Nine, his partner tells him. Nine? “Nine.”
It’s hard even for them to keep up these days. Since the premiere three years ago of the original Cocaine Cowboys—a blood-soaked, white-powdered documentary assemblage of interviews with drug pilot Mickey Munday, dealer Jon Roberts and hit man Jorge “Rivi” Ayala, along with vintage South Florida news footage—Corben and Spellman, both 30, have been riding a growing wave of success. What began as an attempt by the two University of Miami alums to chronicle the city’s shoot-’em-up, blow-’em-up cocaine wars of the early 1980s has morphed into a lucrative branding operation.
First came the follow-up to CC, Cocaine Cowboys II: Hustlin’ With the Godmother, which expanded on the story of the most memorable character from the original film, Griselda Blanco, the “Black Widow” of the ’80s Miami drug trade, who built her empire on the bulletriddled corpses of those stupid enough to underestimate a woman with a temper and a cadre of devoted hit men. Now there’s a third CC film in the works, along with an HBO series, a remixed version of the original CC, an animated series for the Adult Swim cable network and even a coffee-table book.
According to Spellman, that was the plan all along. “With Cocaine Cowboys,” he declares, “we knew right from the beginning that it was going to be a cottage industry—action figures, cartoons, comic books.” The reason, he says, is that when it comes to Miami’s cocaine wars, truth was not only stranger than fiction, but it was also more entertaining. “People thought they had seen how overthe- top the Miami drug scene was with Scarface, but they really hadn’t.” Corben concurs: “The most shocking thing about working on Cocaine Cowboys is that nobody had done a documentary like this before.”
Corben and Spellman, who had only one previous film to their credit—Raw Deal, a 2001 Sundance entry about an alleged rape at the University of Florida—debuted CC at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006. The exposure led to a distribution deal with bad-boy billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban’s Magnolia Pictures.
It was an auspicious start, but the first indication that CC might really blow up came when Corben and Spellman were told that bootleg copies of their film, which had yet to be officially released on DVD, were being sold at the Carol City Flea Market, a popular urban emporium in North Miami-Dade. When they went to the neighborhood to investigate, Corben and Spellman made an even more surprising discovery. “We go into this barbershop,” remembers Corben, “and they have these two TV sets and Cocaine Cowboys is playing on a loop. All day. These guys in the barbershop know all the dialogue—and the film hasn’t even been released!” CC, with its celebration of violence, fast money and the kill-or-bekilled ethos, was an instant hit with the hip-hop demographic. The producers saw the potential for a branding breakthrough. “Hiphop had embraced street-team marketing,” Spellman says. “Why couldn’t we do the same?” Highprofile Miami rappers were some of the film’s biggest fans and, according to Spellman, “it became important for them to say they had seen it,” so Corben and Spellman shot video testimonials with the likes of Trick Daddy, Pitbull and Cool & Dre and posted them on YouTube. It was only a matter of time before wannabe gangstas, white 20-somethings too young to actually remember the ’80s, and the rest of the Facebook set were scrambling to get their copies of CC.
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