PHILADELPHIA NATIVE Rel Dowdell had a fairy-tale baptism in the world of independent film.
While at film school at Boston University, Dowdell pitched his idea for a student short film to Esther Rolle, expanded that to a feature called "Train Ride," released it on DVD and saw it heralded as one of the top 10 titles of the year for 2000.
That's the good news. The bad news: Dowdell had exhausted his lifetime supply of good news. He was about to discover firsthand just how hard it is to make and distribute a truly independent movie.
"The strange thing is that now it is so much tougher than it was when I was in film school. Back then, you had companies like New Line or October that specialized in independent film, and they're gone now. It's tough."
How tough? He's only just finished his second feature, "Changing the Game," the product of seven long grueling years of work. It opens today at the AMC Cherry Hill, and in several other cities across the country.
That it exists at all is a tribute to Dowdell's persistence, something he learned growing up on the same Germantown street as boxer Bernard Hopkins. They've chosen different arenas, but both are fighters.
So learned Philadelphia businessman Thom Webster, who's raised money for the Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia. Several years ago, he saw Dowdell speak at a graduation ceremony. Dowdell mentioned he was looking for investors for "Changing the Game," the story of a Philadelphia guy who tries to make it big on Wall Street.
"I told him no," said Webster, a consultant/training/logistics entrepreneur. "I told him I don't know anything about the movie business; that's not what I do. The next day he showed up at my office; I told him no again."
More meetings, more lunches, and Dowdell had a definite maybe.
A big break, surely, but like many independent filmmakers, Dowdell made his own breaks — starting with his first feature. He never found theatrical distribution for "Train Ride," but took it on the festival circuit himself, where it caught the eye of veteran TV/film character actor Tony Todd.
"We sort of bonded, and he said, 'Whatever you do next, I want to be the first actor you hire,' " Dowdell said. He was, and Todd's name helped raise the movie's profile with investors, and with actors.
"As an independent filmmaker, if you can get one noted veteran actor, it helps exponentially."
That's a few condensed paragraphs of history, but it was several years of Dowdell's life. Still, with Todd on board, potential investors lined up and Dowdell was able to interest other actors — the Oscar-nominated Irma P. Hall, Sean Riggs ("Stomp the Yard"), Sticky Fingaz, Dennis L.A. White.
With this solid cast on board, Dowdell hoped he'd attract a couple of million more for his putative epic, one that spans 30 years and three continents. But by now he was hard up against the recession, and the money didn't materialize, so he made do.
"You redo the budget, you cut back, you just make it happen," said Dowdell. He found places in his hometown to double for all designated locations.
"We're lucky. Philadelphia is an eclectic city. It can be very chameleonlike.
"It's one reason why they shoot so many movies here."
Even with "Changing The Game" in the can, more battles loomed. Dowdell wanted theatrical distribution, where prospects for truly independent film are dismal.
More indie hustle: When he screened the movie at the Hollyood Black Film Festival, he and co-scripter Aaron Astillero (taking a cue from the "Paramornal Activity" ad campaign) used mobile phones to record the reactions of folks outside the theater.
They showed the footage to AMC's new independent distribution arm, and hit pay dirt.
And so, today, Dowdell's seven-year journey climaxes with a theatrical release.
His next project?
"I wish I could say," Dowdell said, "But this movie wore me out." n
Contact movie critic Gary Thompson at 215-854-5992 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "Keep It Reel," at www.philly.com/keepitreel.