Miami Beach filmmakers Rakontur build on fame after breakout Netflix hit Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami
by Mike Vogel
Updated 11 months ago
As the setting for a coming-of-age story, it would be hard to top Miami of the 1980s and ’90s. Drug wars. Race riots. America’s murder capital. The Mariel boatlift. Miami Vice. Local kids Billy Corben, Alfred Spellman and David Cypkin had front-row seats for Miami as a byword.
Spellman remembers being a 9-year-old pedaling his bike to school, passing upscale Indian Creek Island and seeing a battalion of law enforcement officers, two police boats and lots of bales. “Witnessing your first drug bust is something that certainly came with the territory of being an ’80s Miami child,” he says. In high school, the three reveled in the chroniclers of the chaos who formed their impressions of South Florida: Newspaper columnist and novelist Carl Hiaasen, the late radio host Neil Rogers and alternative newspaper, Miami New Times. They became such junkies of Miami modern history that Spellman can recite passages from the New Times story “Glorious & Notorious” from a quarter-century ago about the old Mutiny Hotel in Coconut Grove: “Casablanca had Rick’s; Vegas had the Stardust; Miami’s cocaine jazz age had the decadent Mutiny Hotel.”
The three had another fascination — film. They saw no one telling the South Florida story in non-fiction films so they founded a company reflecting their own brash brand and called it Rakontur. They set their sights on Miami’s most brazen true stories, from its street fights and jai alai frontons to its sports scandals and its most notorious cocaine kingpins. For a time in 2021, their Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami — chronicling the rise and fall of kingpins Willy Falcon and Sal Magluta — was the No. 2 show in the world for Netflix. Their stature in the industry is unquestioned. “From a story-telling perspective, they are as good as it gets,” says John Lux, executive director of industry group Film Florida.
To amend the New Times headline: The Miami story in print has Hiaasen; on film it has Rakontur.
Their made-in-Florida story begins in the year all three were born, 1978. Corben — a stage name for Cohen — was born in Fort Myers, where his Miami real estate development family was working at the time. Spellman was born at Mount Sinai hospital on Miami Beach, a rare Miami Beach native, and Cypkin in Miami. Spellman remembers when Miami Beach was populated by retirees, including a number of Holocaust survivors, recognizable by the tattoos from the concentration camps on their arms, whom he saw around his Temple Menorah pre-school. “That was real impactful for me as a kid,” he says. Corben and Cypkin, meanwhile, were in pre-school together in north Miami-Dade. Then, the talk of the town was the television series Miami Vice, which launched in 1984. With its pastel-drenched Art Deco backdrop and trend-setting music and fashion, the series inspired the renaissance of Miami Beach. Spellman can name the year a Calvin Klein photo shoot — 1986 by photographer Bruce Weber on the roof of the Breakwater Hotel — launched the Miami fashion scene, almost overnight transforming Miami Beach from an open-air senior center to a haven for the young, lithe and chiseled. “It was literally like a light switch was thrown,” he says.
Corben became a child actor in L.A. Law, Dear John and, as a teenager, in the Roger Corman-produced horror comedy Stepmonster. At Highland Lakes Middle School in north Miami-Dade, TV production teacher Sheila Spicer introduced Corben to Spellman, a kindred film enthusiast.
They later attended different high schools but collaborated on short fiction movies addressing date rape, HIV and other topical teen stories. Government and community institutions funded the films; Spellman’s mother drove him to pitch meetings.
While Cypkin went off to Florida State’s famed film program, Spellman and Corben attended the University of Miami. “Teenage celluloid whiz kids,” theMiami Herald called them in a 1998 story about an early feature film.
Then an explosive incident in 1999 became their detour into documentaries. Their 2001 film Raw Deal: A Question of Consent included salacious footage from a University of Florida fraternity house of sexual acts involving frat members and a stripper who later alleged she was raped. The woman was arrested for filing a false report, setting off a firestorm of controversy. Under Florida’s broad open records law, police had released the footage Spellman and Corben used in their documentary, which earned them an invitation to the Sundance Film Festival. The film, the New York Post reported, “made its producer and director, a pair of 22-year-old college students, the hottest new filmmakers at the nation’s leading festival for independent movies.” Back from Sundance, Corben told the Herald that Raw Deal was a one-off. “I don’t think you’ll see another documentary from us for a very long time,” he said. “We’re not documentarians.”
In a Rakontur film, that quote would hang there for a moment, then be contradicted by a montage of their 22 documentaries that followed.
A franchise is born
The trio founded Rakontur, the phonetic spelling for raconteur, as in one skilled at telling stories in an amusing way. In an industry where feature filmmakers grow old waiting for everything to align to go forward with a project, they have no need to obtain anyone’s green light but their own. In 2006, they released Cocaine Cowboys, which became their franchise.
“I think Cocaine Cowboys will stand as the classic documentary about Miami’s most thoroughly documented era,” Hiaasen says. “The on-camera interviews with dope smugglers and assassins are fascinating, even to those of us who’d written about the madness as it was happening.”
The film established the Rakontur model. No narrator. No director-as-star, like Michael Moore’s movies; they don’t appear on screen. Corben directs, Spellman produces. Cypkin edits. They like subjects that have had time to “ripen.” The time lag allows key figures to be reflective — or at least to be out of prison for an interview. Music is crucial. ForCocaine Cowboys, they got Jan Hammer, composer of theMiami Vice theme.
Their “pop docs” are satirical, edgy — films that, unlike the dry videos they watched in middle school, entertain. They follow the three-act structure of feature films. Their key innovation: Documentaries as “genre” pictures — a heist movie or sports story. The genre for Cocaine Cowboys: Gangster film. It follows the rise of the cocaine trade and Miami’s transformation to America’s murder capital. “Billy and Alfred are elite,” says Film Florida’s Lux. “They have a passion for telling authentic Florida stories. Some people like the content. Some people don’t like the content.”
Indeed, the original Cocaine Cowboys concludes with an arresting idea about the economic impact of the illegal drug importing. “The theory was that modern Miami was built on the back of the drug trade, that cocaine took Miami from God’s waiting room to America’s Riviera — not something the Chamber of Commerce advertises,” Spellman says.
The filmmakers live on the left end of the political spectrum. Beyond the films, Corben takes the role of local gadfly to a new level as an activist voice in Miami politics and coined #BecauseMiami on social media, where it’s regularly used to skewer public officials. An example: As Miami and soccer team business Inter Miami earlier this year worked on a deal to develop a stadium and hotel on a public golf course site, Corben put out 2-minute attack video with unsparing language. The video’s narrator was David Samson, the former Miami Marlins president who years earlier negotiated the controversial Marlins stadium deal. Samson ends the video on camera saying, “I thought I’d be the final guy who (bleeped) you. Turns out, I’m not.”
Over lunch at a restaurant below their second-floor office on Lincoln Road, Miami Beach’s pedestrian shopping street, Spellman and Corben are a tour de force of Miami history — though not a history civic leaders would endorse in some cases — whether it’s the reality TV shows that used to film on Lincoln Road, pointing out the eyewear shop where a Trump associate shopped or giving a decade-by-decade thematic history of South Florida — ’70s pot, ’80s cocaine, ’90s South Beach renaissance, ’00s arts boom. Corben delivers a modern-day version of Civil War era writer Ambrose Bierce with his biting aphorisms. “You know you’re in a thinker’s town when there’s picture menus,” he says as he moves the menu aside. One moment he references the region’s Russian oligarch investment ties — “KGBeach” — another he fires shots at Miami as one long real estate hustle. Spellman is more methodical in building his thesis. But they are of similar mind. “The Florida of today is the America of tomorrow,” Corben says. “The only reason Miami matters — Miami is a disposable city — to borrow the term from Mario (author Mario Alejandro Ariza’s title for his book on Miami and climate change) — but Miami matters in that we are the ultimate cautionary tale — how to get it right but mostly how to get it wrong.”
The studio’s in-house payroll has never numbered more than six, Spellman says, as they contract for nearly everything. The pandemic changed how they work by showing how far afield they could tap talent. It generally takes them nine to 12 months to make a film. Corben and Spellman gather interviews and material, which they deliver to Cypkin, who does much of the editing. Cypkin, as is true of many visits with Rakontur, wasn’t present for the interview. “Snuffleupagus,” Corben says, referencing the Sesame Street character that didn’t appear to most other characters. “The Ringo of the operation,” he continues riffing. “He always keeps the beat, but he’s underrated.”
Initially, Rakontur financed films through friends and family. Now, some films they finance themselves with investors. Others are commissioned, such as their ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries, including two on UM football.
Only a fraction of would-be non-fiction filmmakers get their films funded, and 70% of films fail to make back their budgets, says Scott duPont, a film producer and former board member of Film Florida. He recently produced a film, Movie Money Confidential, about financing non-fiction films. Nonetheless, du- Pont says, now is “a really exciting time for documentaries.”
Credit Netflix. Before streaming, nonfiction filmmakers had few avenues for distribution. At best, documentaries would appear in art houses or for a couple weeks in a multiplex before going to DVD. Foreign distribution was a country-by-country slog. Netflix revealed that documentaries have a wide audience and pushes them out to viewers in 190 countries. What’s more, streaming services welcomed long treatments. Corben recalls how — in the pre-streaming era — he called to tell Spellman he and Cypkin had finished the rough cut of the original Co-caine Cowboys. It was four hours long. To be marketable, it needed to be cut in half. In contrast, their 2021 Netflix hit, Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami, about a separate criminal enterprise, totaled 4½ hours over six episodes.
Lucrative returns on documentaries entice buyers. “Netflix can fund a $100-million feature film or a $5 million to $10 million doc. It creates incredible margins, and the business has exploded as a result of that,” Spellman says. “We’re in the gold rush period of premium docs because there are so many buyers.”
As for the earnings, they aren’t nearly as open as the people interviewed in their films. “We make a living doing this, which in and of itself is a blessing,” Corben says. “This is not a business where you can write a hit song and we can dine out on ‘Margaritaville’ in perpetuity. The measure of a successful filmmaker is that you get to work again. And you have to work again — in docs anyway.”
Spellman won’t go beyond saying some of their films are more profitable than others. Meanwhile, competition has piled in. This year’s Oscar for documentary short subject went to the New York Times. Fiction filmmakers such as Ron Howard and Martin Scorsese have gotten into documentaries — “that’s annoying,” Corben says, “Come on. Stay in your lane, guys” — as has Lord of the Rings maker Peter Jackson, who came out with the Get Back documentary on the Beatles.
“We can’t compete with that,” Corben says.
“But the funny thing is, we are,” Spellman says.
They have seven films currently under way — their most ever. It’s the equivalent of a third of all they produced in the prior 20 years. Coming in 2023 will be a film — title and subject still under wraps — that is being directed by Nicole Pritchett, who was a line producer on Cocaine Cowboys: The Kings of Miami and a co-producer ofMagic City Hustle. It’s Rakontur’s first film not directed by Corben. Also, they’ve partnered with filmmakers Todd Shulman and Adam McKay. McKay, known for such Will Ferrell comedies as Anchorman, shifted after the Great Recession to dramas with the Oscar-nominated The Big Short and Don’t Look Up. As producing partners, McKay and Shulman share in the production and ownership of certain Rakontur films, such as 537 Votes about the contested 2000 presidential election. “Creatively and economically, it’s been a fabulous partnership,” Spellman says.
They’ve moved to a new type of story — Florida subjects with impact beyond the state. He points to 2019’s Screwball on Netflix — about the Miami origin of Major League Baseball’s performance-enhancing drug scandal — as the first film of the evolution. “The butterfly floats its wings in South Florida, and the entire world and the country ends up changing as a result,” Spellman says.
At this point in one of their films, the narrative arc might begin an ominous bend toward a comeuppance as the landscape changes and their ambitions grow. They seem to recognize the challenge as they gravitate to more gravitas. Corben says his Netflix queue is stocked with documentaries on important subjects that people have insisted “you have to watch” but he never watches. “Now we want to bring that ‘you have to watch’ them import to it without being pretentious. We like to make the ones that you want to watch,” he says.
One shift they say they won’t make: Exiting Florida.
“You never run out of stories,” Spellman says.
“An untapped natural resource,” Corben adds.