Some people are what I call "unexpected entrepreneurs": actors, musicians, athletes... even though you might not normally think of them as such, they're definitely entrepreneurs.
And that's also true for filmmakers -- or, at least, for Billy Corben, one of the co-founders of Rakontur, the production company Corben started with childhood friends Alfred Spellman and David Cypkin
Billy is the director of films like Cocaine Cowboys, the ESPN 30 for 30 documentaries The U (a film that helped turn the 30 for 30 brand into an institution) and The U Part 2, and the upcoming Cocaine Cowboys: Los Muchachos. (That's just a short list.)
And as you'll see, each is a testament to Billy's, and Rakontur's, entrepreneurial spirit, drive, and enthusiasm. No money? No problem; they find a way. No one has ever done it this way before? No problem; they will.
Billy clearly loves what he does as well as the people he does it with. So if you're an aspiring entrepreneur who is unsure how -- or whether -- to get started on your entrepreneurial journey, read on: Billy's origin story could provide the perfect inspiration.
Let's start with 30 for 30, since that's where I first noticed you.
The first round of 30 for 30 was six films. They were just hoping to get to 30. (Laughs.) The first few films didn't rate well. They were really good, but the series wasn't making the impression ESPN hoped. Plus they didn't really know how to promote them yet.
Fortunately for us, they positioned The U after the Heisman Trophy awards show. None of the others had that kind of live lead-in. That Heisman time slot was great for us. A lot of people say, "Hey, you guys did the first 30 for 30..." and we say, "No, but maybe it was the first 30 for 30 you saw." (Laughs.)
It was a huge relief when The U performed the way it did. We thought it was a great story well told, but the stars aligned when they aired it right after the Heisman show.
"A great story well told" is basically your mantra.
That's our motto, and my pinned tweet. Documentary filmmaking involves two basic steps: Find a great story... and don't (screw) it up. The same is also true for journalists, screenwriters, fiction writers, etc. Find a good story and don't screw it up.
That's easier said than done, of course.
As documentary filmmakers, people reach out to us all the time and say, "Yo, bro, I have the greatest idea for a documentary." Usually they're wrong. (Laughs.)
Recognizing a good story is important, but then figuring out whether you can tell that story in a way that engages an audience and truly serves the story... often that's far from easy.
So now let's go all the way back. How did you decide to start a company that makes documentaries?
I grew up in Miami in the 80s. My first time at bat in tee-ball, I struck out. Remember, in tee-ball the ball is just sitting on a tee. Me, I hit the tee.
I knew early on I wasn't going to be an athlete so I found other hobbies.
A friend was doing commercials; I saw her on TV, thought that looked like fun, and became a child actor.
One of the early films I did was Parenthood. I was the kid at the birthday party who cusses: "Let's go watch the horse shit," and "That's the schmuck that brought the horse." Ron Howard was the director, and my mom couldn't believe that Opie was making me curse. (Laughs.)
Ron had his brother and his dad in the movie. He knew everyone's name on the set, even mine. Every day he would say, "Good morning." I know that doesn't sound like much, but he was was the opposite of the stereotypical "Hollywood director," and that's when I became interested in directing.
But you kept acting for a while.
I had a few more roles in films, and for a few years we went to Los Angeles for pilot season.
Hilary Swank was in the last pilot I did. The executive producers of that show had two pilots: Our show was called Reality Check, and the other was the "untitled Courteny Cox project" at NBC.
I like to say that if Reality Check had been picked up it would have ruined all of our lives. I went back to Miami and started a company with Alfred and David Cypkin, and we became the youngest filmmakers in Sundance history. Hilary Swank went on to win two Oscars.
David Crane and Marta Kaufman got their other show picked up -- it was later renamed Friends.
So yeah, I think having Reality Check fail worked out pretty well for all of us. (Laughs.)
I'm sure acting was helpful, but how did you actually learn to direct?
I majored in screenwriting. We learned about narrative films, not documentaries. We were doing old-school filmmaking.
But that's when non-linear editing began to be introduced, and when digital video started happening. When The Blair Witch Project came out, every schmuck with a camera thought they could be a filmmaker. That included us. (Laughs.)
Alfred knew right away that digital was the future. Everyone was downloading music, we knew downloading would affect the movie business... even though we were being taught traditional filmmaking, we decided to go digital.
And we took a pretty savvy perspective on using video. When we watched some of the movies that were shot using video instead of film, we realized the best ones incorporated the format into the story: There needed to be a reason you shot on video. It's like that was your excuse for using a lower-quality method. At the time, video didn't have the warmth of film -- you couldn't use video to make a film like ET.
So we thought we should do a documentary, because video is normal for non-fiction. Not to mention it was so much more economical, which was a huge issue because we didn't have any money.
So you turned a constraint into an advantage.
Absolutely. The expense of film, the size of the crew, the expertise required... that was a huge financial burden. Video broke down the barriers to entry and helped democratize production. Now you could buy a digital camera for less than it cost to rent a film camera.
We knew it was just a matter of time before the gatekeepers would fall and we would see the democratization of distribution.
So Alfred and I decided to do a documentary, but we had no formal training.
What you decide to do first is often make or break for entrepreneurs. How did you pick the first story you wanted to tell?
A lot of our friends grew up in the same neighborhood. We were all middle-class, suburban Jewish kids, north Miami kids -- we all had similar upbringings and experiences.
I was talking to one friend and he said, "Did you hear about what happened with Delta Chi and the stripper?" (In 1999, two strippers were hired to perform at the Delta Chi fraternity house at the University of Florida. The next morning, one of them went to police and claimed she had been raped; after reviewing video taken at the party, police charged her with filing a false report.)
My friend said, "I saw the video, and I can't believe what this guy did to this woman. I can't believe no one was arrested."
Then I was talking to another friend and he said, "I can't believe what this woman did. She's lying. I hope they lock her up."
And I thought, "How can two reasonable people with such similar backgrounds watch the same footage... and disagree to such an extent on what they saw?"
It all came together: Alfred said digital, I said documentary, and we had a great story.
So in 2000 we raised a little money from friends and family, took a leave of absence from college, moved into a month-to-month rental apartment in Gainesville, and pursued the story. In 2001 the film premiered at Sundance: we were on the front page of the NY Post and were like the belles of the Sundance ball.
You make it sound easy, but you had never done anything like it.
We pretty much made it up as we went along, but we did have some rules.
First, we had to be a real team. We worked with people who were tight knit, who we trusted, and that we admired and respected. That was number one -- and still is.
Two, we had to be collaborative. We were a really small crew and everyone had to contribute: everyone had to be willing to do anything that needed to be done. It's not that there were no egos, but everyone kept working towards a common goal: Tell a compelling story, and don't screw it up.
Ad we did go into it with some ideas about how to approach the story. Since I hadn't studied documentaries in school, I said, "Let's apply the scientific method. Let's apply the skills we've learned in researching and writing papers, and what we know about screenwriting and editing... because that's storytelling."
And we discovered that a lot of the process of writing is actually in post production, in the editing.
We would add a piece of footage that seemed to support, say, the fraternity and someone would say, "Wait, there's another sound bite that counters it." We challenged each other and tried to keep the film as balanced as possible.
Later we got a rave review of Raw Deal: A Question of Consent that referred to the film as a "triumph of objective reporting," which made us really proud.
During Q & A sessions people would ask what we thought happened, and I would say, "My position is very clear in the movie." They would laugh... but we really didn't know.
It's funny: we finally made our final edits and shipped the film off to Sundance, and five days later we watched it at the premier. I had leaned one way the whole time, but when I walked out of the movie I had changed my mind. I saw Alfred in the lobby and told him that, and he said, "Me too -- I changed my mind." But we both still ended up on opposite sides. (Laughs.)
When we finished the film we thought, "We either nailed this... or it's a total mess." Fortunately, it turned out to be the former.
But Raw Deal was never released.
The film got a lot of attention. It was controversial, it sparked significant commentary... even the grandmother of the alleged victim/accuser said the movie should be shown to every incoming freshman class because there's a lot that can be learned from it.
Yet no one would release it.
It's like our "lost" piece. There are obviously things I would do differently. I made plenty of first-time mistakes, but I still think it was some of our best work, and is certainly important in terms of raising a conversation worth having.
We were hugely disappointed that the film wasn't released, but like my grandfather said, "You're a producer: Go produce."
So we went back to Miami. We want to be Miami filmmakers, to make an identity for our company as storytellers and filmmakers associated with our location.
For our next project, we wanted to make a calling card documentary, and we had always been interested in how Miami was known as a sunny place for shady people... so we decided to go with a feature documentary we were calling A City Made of Snow.
And nobody wanted to finance it.
But we really felt like we were on to something. The timing felt right: Scarface came out with a 20th anniversary DVD, Miami Vice was out on DVD, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was the top selling video game... we thought the nostalgia cycle for all things Miami of the 80s would make it work.
So we found an angel investor, got started, changed the name to Cocaine Cowboys, got financing to finish filming... and then spent two year editing it.
Why so long? Too much footage? Or were there story problems?
David Cypkin was cutting and cutting and cutting, and eventually we called Alfred to watch a rough cut. I said, "Hey Alfred, we have a rough cut of 3.5 hours..." and he said, "F --- off, keep cutting." It was hard, though: We thought we had so much good stuff.
In fact, we wanted to do a documentary mini-series: four hours, maybe five hours.... Alfred said, "There's no such thing as a documentary mini-series. It's hard enough to sell a 2-hour documentary. How are we going to sell people on a model that doesn't exist?"
Today you pitch a two-hour feature and a network will say, "Great, but can you make it six or eight hours?" (Laughs.)
But at the time, Alfred was right.
Still, we did manage to pull off some new things. The average feature had around 1,500 cuts; ours had 5,000. We used two cameras, sometimes three or four, with one constantly moving on a dolly... now everyone uses movement. We decided to fade to white, not black, we used a specific color scheme and a neon aesthetic, we somehow got Jan Hammer to do our music, we shot digital and super 8 and 16 mm to create a mixed-media feel... those were all conscious choices.
Our style was dubbed "pop-docs," because they tend to be less about socially conscious subjects and inclined more towards pop culture. After all, we were making a documentary... but we were also making a gangster movie.
That unconventional approach paid off when you released Cocaine Cowboys.
At Tribeca we met Tom Quinn, the VP of Magnolia, and he wanted to distribute the movie. Alfred was bullish on Magnolia because they had their own in-house DVD distribution.
We said, "Don't market it like a documentary; market it like a gangster movie." So Magnolia convinced outlets like Best Buy to not put it in their "special interest" section with WW2 docs and Pilates videos, and instead put it in the "action" section with feature films -- and it blew up.
Typically the best week for any film is its first week; after that, sales tail off pretty quickly. Cocaine Cowboys sold more units each successive month for the next 12 months. Of course that was the last year of the real power of DVDs. (Laughs.)
We've been just young enough to adapt quickly and ride each wave and then catch a little bit of the next wave.
You've also invested a ton of money into infrastructure, which certainly helps in terms of your business model.
We own our post-production equipment, and we're constantly looking to upgrade because everything you buy is obsolete the day before you bought it.
We have our own production equipment; the market allows you to do that now. You can have your own studio, operating almost like a factory: You have the equipment, can bring in labor as necessary, and can produce out of an office space as long as there are enough plugs for all of your stuff. (Laughs.)
That's the barrier to entry now. If we say, "I want to shoot an interview tomorrow," we can do it. If we need to follow people around with a Steadicam, we're good to go. We have all the tools so we can be nimble.
Say you have an idea. How do you pull the pieces together?
Back in the day you found investors to finance it, then you took the film to market hoping to sell it.
Now we try to find a buyer first -- or sometimes buyers come to us. If you have a reputation and they have an idea, they look to you to work together. Sometimes that's actually easier, because we can be more objective about the story we want to tell. Other times we'll say that we're not the best people for the job, and that others can do it better.
And sometimes we will start a project on spec. We had an interesting opportunity ot do what eventually became Dawg Fight. We did pre-interviewers with fighters, followed the promoters, shot a few events, all on our dime... and months into the project Alfred said, "Do we have anything here? Why are we doing this?"
I had a good beginning and a solid middle, but I didn't have an ending. We shot for a year and a half before we realized where it was going. Then we spent a year or so editing a rough cut... and then it took five years to sell.
People were saying it was too urban, too violent, and too real, and I thought, "You're describing everything that is popular in American culture." We were going to release it ourselves but we had a meeting with Netflix and they said, "We love it. We'll take it."
We still haven't broken even yet. In many ways it was a labor of love, but we will break even, and we'll eventually do a sequel.
The measure of success for a filmmaker isn't box office or awards or ratings. The measure of success is getting to work again. That's what you want to do: Make a living doing something you love.
One of the best things we've done is stay agile enough to adjust to the market. We've stayed small, stayed flexible, we've invested in ourselves, and we still get to make a living doing something we love.
How many people get to do that?