Lights, Camera, Action!

Filmmakers Celebrate 10 Years of The Buffalo Niagara Film Festival

By Jordan Canahai

If you ask any dedicated filmmaker or professional in the movie industry to name the biggest film festivals in North America, you’d no doubt hear a lot of the same answers; Toronto, Sundance,  New York, Telluride, etc. For the past 10 years it has been the dream of filmmaker and Western New York native Bill Cowell to make the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival a home-grown event worthy of being mentioned alongside those institutions.  The upcoming 2016 festivities, which marks the events 10th anniversary, is set to take place next week from Wednesday, April 13th through Sunday, April 17th at the historic Tonawanda castle. Described as a “festival by filmmakers, for filmmakers,” the BNFF has long been a great place for producers, directors, and screenwriters based on the East coast to network with industry professionals from around the world.

Still from Sound of Tears
Still from Sound of Tears

“Before we started people had always talked about doing a film festival in Buffalo but nobody had really gone through with it,” said Cowell, “so I reached out to my contacts and said let’s do this. It’s been an awesome experience. Working with both long-time friends and new friends who are a part of it, everyone involved is really excited and dedicated to growing the festival.”

Cowell and fellow organizers have worked hard this past year to ensure this year’s festival is even more special than previous events, and they’re proud to showcase a line-up that includes over 50 full length features as well as 40 shorts across a wide variety of genres from both local filmmakers and those throughout the country. Some titles, such as Rob Imbs’ Game Changers and Emil Novak’s Frankenstein’s Patchwork Monster, may be familiar to Artvoice readers who have followed my coverage of our local independent film scene in the past year. 

The launching of the BNFF’s Main Events and Opening Ceremonies will take place Wednesday April 13th at the Tonawanda castle, a 38,000 square foot one-of-a-kind-beauty built in 1896, whose interior has been outfitted and set up to host three separate theaters for screenings. 

Friday, April 15th will see producer and director Stanley Isaacs present the world premiere of his film It’s Always About the Story: Conversations With Alan Ladd Jr. Using the man’s own words to tell his story, the film offers a rare glimpse into the life of the renowned Academy award winning producer who gave the green light to films as beloved as Young Frankenstein, Star Wars, Alien, Chariots of Fire, Blade Runner, The Right Stuff, Thelma and Louis, and Braveheart. Along with writing, directing, and producing, Isaacs is a friend of the BNFF and husband of Cheryl Boone Isaacs, current President of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

This day will also see the 20 year reunion premiere of Larry Bishop’s 1996 independent cult film Mad Dog Time, whose all-star cast includes Diane Lane, Burt Reynolds, Richard Dreyfuss, Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum, Gabriel Byrne, Billy Idol, and Rob Reiner. Bishop, who wrote, directed, and produced the film, will be present to debut behind the scenes footage, share memorabilia, meet with fans, and discuss his experiences making the film. Bishop is an actor, the recipient of a BNFF Walk of Fame and the son of comedic movie and TV star Joey Bishop. Some of Larry Bishop’s other film credits include Underworld, Kill Bill Vol. 2, and Hell Ride. Last year, Cowell drove 3,000 miles across the country to L.A. to attend a tribute party Quentin Tarantino hosted for Bishop at his New Beverly Cinema, where Cowell personally presented to Bishop a large-size painting of the actor by Buffalo artist Phillip Burke.

In keeping with the diverse festivities, Saturday, April 16th is Comic-Con Theme Day, offering guests a chance to indulge their inner-superhero. It will include a full day of comic-con market space, special celebrity guest appearances, panel discussions, autograph signings, photo opportunities, world premieres, horror film screenings, and a fun-filled masquerade party involving entertainment, spirits, and themed costumes. Along with film screenings, BNFF has also offered various high-profile panels, seminars, and workshops to aspiring filmmakers seeking new insights for honing their craft.  These workshops cover a wide spectrum of subjects, including screenwriting, production and distribution, women in film, and more. This year includes a special focus on animation, offering an animation panel Thursday and an in-depth two day animation workshop Friday and Saturday and given by professionals from some of the country’s top animation schools. By the end of both 12-hour workshops, participants will have completed their own 30-second animation. 

The final day of the festival, Sunday, April 17th will see the premiere of two very special films paying tribute to the troops and is set to coincide with the BNFF Fallen Soldier Event. The first film, Kaziah the Goat Woman, concerns beloved American artist and goat rancher Kaziah Hancock, who has used her extraordinary talents to paint over 1,530 portraits of fallen soldiers and over 3200 paintings total with a couple of mother artists within her organization. These paintings are gifts to their families.  The second film, Beyond Glory, follows acclaimed actor Stephen Lang (Avatar, Conan, Tombstone) as he recounts the ten year odyssey behind his one-man show about eight Medal of Honor recipients, and will feature Lang and director Larry Brand in attendance for a post-screening Q & A. 

The Fallen Soldiers ceremony is a special part of the BNFF honoring families of fallen soldiers from the Iraq War with Hero portraits painted by Hancock and presented to their loved ones. In attendance will be Staff Sgt. Timothy Payne, a wounded local Army Airborne soldier and recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from President Obama. Other special celebrity guests and presenters who will be honoring the heroes before announcing the 2016 BNFF award winners include Lang, Bishop, Isaacs, Frank Dux, Jon Van Ness, and others .A former armed forces member himself, Cowell has long been passionate about the cause. 

Still from The Incrdible Adventures of Jojo
Still from The Incrdible Adventures of Jojo

“Four years ago I hosted an event at the Rapids Theater about Hancock, a woman who has dedicated herself to painting every fallen soldier of the Iraq War, and we commemorated her 1,000th painting. At the same time I had just seen a documentary film called If I Should Fall made by a Canadian soldier and filmmaker about his wartime experiences and who tragically died while serving in Afghanistan. I reached out to Hancock and asked her if she would paint a portrait of him along with other local fallen soldiers, and it’s been an honor to work with her. Brethren are brethren, and the men who serve our country make it possible for us to be free to pursue our careers in the arts” says Cowell.

A special highlight of the BNFF has always been its Walk of Fame, which honors the most celebrated of filmmakers for their contributions to the festival and the arts as a whole. Past recipients of the award include William Fichtner, Tom Sizemore, Evander Holyfield, Michael Madsen, Larry Bishop and Barry Kivel.  Those being honored this year include Lang, alongside grandmaster martial artist Frank Dux (the true-life inspiration for Jean-Claude Van Damme’s hugely successful Bloodsport) and actor Jon Van Ness (The Natural, Brubaker, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Hitcher). The BNFF’s 2016 Lifetime Achievement Award recipient will be industry legend and Cowell’s close friend Dick Delson- the writer, publicist, and strategist for numerous Golden Globe, Oscar, and Presidential campaigns. Delson has been credited with over 300 Academy Award Nominations and over 100 wins between all his clients over the years, having campaigned for American Graffiti, Jaws, Rocky, Lord of the Rings, Air Force One, Chicago, Gangs of New York, and hundreds more. 

The BNFF is also going to include some major announcements on several new films in development that will be shot locally with some major stars and talent, and produced by Cowell and others. While not much can be divulged at the moment, Cowell could confirm some of his upcoming projects include a film about Native American history, a feature-length animation, and a prequel to Bloodsport, which is to be written and directed by Larry Bishop, with Cowell and Frank Dux Producing and assisting with the story.

Cowell also has plans to reveal a new concept feature in tribute to Quentin Tarantino, as well as future inclusions into the BNFF Walk of Fame and commemorative BNFF Monument.

With the backdrop of Niagara Falls and the region’s vast wine country, the BNFF has always offered guests the perfect setting for a weekend of food, fun, and films.  There will be a full bar with sponsored beers, wines, and spirits, along with almost any kind of food and snacks available during all BNFF festival activities and events. All this ensures even non-professionals and casual movie-goers are guaranteed a great time during the whole event, while being able to support their community’s art scene and our filmmakers.

For Cowell, the goals of the BNFF are an extension of his own as a Western New York producer and filmmaker, which is to provide opportunities to local filmmakers, expanding the region’s growing film industry. “I’ve already helmed a few smaller productions here,” said Cowell, “I can get things done in Niagara Falls and Buffalo way cheaper than anywhere in New York and L.A. I’ve been successful with negotiating… It’s been really satisfying to hear such positive feedback from filmmakers, especially from some of the more famous individuals who have been a part of the event. This is just the start, we’re gonna have a lot more film projects happening here going forward.”

All show times and events including future updates within the next few days can be found on the website www.thebnff.com

ARTIST SPOTLIGHT: BILL COWELL

An established writer, producer, and director as well as founder and President of the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival, few individuals have worked as hard to expand the film industry of Western New York as Bill Cowell. The Niagara Falls native’s passion for the arts can be traced back to his childhood years spent being mentored by his Grandfather and Niagara Falls pioneer Charles Martino, for whom Cowell credits his creativity, artistic abilities, business mind, and sense of honor. Before pursuing a career in filmmaking, Cowell enlisted in the United States Navy when he was 18, where he traveled the world aboard the Aircraft Carrier USS Midway as a specialist. “I don’t think I chose filmmaking, I think filmmaking chose me. I was always piss and vinegar when I was young, always doing something to not channel my energy properly. What I found was so cool about films, every project is so unique and challenging, I’ve finally found the perfect creative outlet to channel my energy towards” says Cowell.

Before founding the Buffalo-Niagara Film Festival Cowell worked as a screenwriter and producer and director on various independent productions. One of Cowell’s earliest collaborators was a young sound mixer named Thomas Curley, whom Cowell gave his first professional gig to when he hired him on an independent film titled Raindrops from 2000. Last year, Cowell received a call from Curley;  “Bill, thanks so much for giving me my first job!” said Curley. “I just won an academy award for best sound mixing on Whiplash!”

Cowell would go on to work on other projects like the documentary The Natural: The Best There Ever Was, about the making of the classic Buffalo-based sports drama, featuring interviews with director Barry Levinson, star Robert Redford, and others involved in the film’s production, including BNFF Walk of Fame recipient actor/director Barry Kivel. 

“He’s totally into the craft of filmmaking,” said Kivel talking about Bill Cowell, “he’s a tremendously talented filmmaker and screenwriter, as well as such a stand-up guy. He doesn’t waiver on his word. If he reaches out to me to work on a project I’ll always be there. He is the most stand-up individual I think I’ve met in the 30-plus years I’ve been working in the industry. I think what he’s doing with this festival and growing it is creating a space where likeminded filmmakers are brought together; people are coming from all over the country to be there. It’s a very positive space where everyone is exchanging ideas and working together to improve their craft. He’s giving back to the city of Buffalo, and he’s nurturing the film community. This is a tough business, and he’s just a great human being who’s doing a lot for the industry.” 

Others in the industry whom I spoke with echoed Kivel’s sentiments regarding Cowell, including 2016 BNFF Walk of Fame recipient Larry Bishop. “I first met Bill Cowell in 2013 when he invited me and Michael Madsen to the festival to screen our film Hell Ride, which I wrote, directed, and starred in and which Quentin Tarantino produced. I had a great time. I thought Bill was a world class person and we kept in touch. About a year ago Quentin held a screening event featuring five of my films and I invited Cowell to be there. Not only did he show up, he also brought a huge Phillip Burke painting of myself with the Rat Pack as a gift. [Larry’s father Joey Bishop was a member of the group of Las Vegas entertainers known as The Rat Pack, which included Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Steve Lawrence, and Sammy Davis, Jr.] This thing was the size of my living room! He’s one of the all time stand up guys, and I’m looking forward to collaborating with him on future films” says Bishop. 

Looking forward, Cowell plans to continue to nurture the relationships he’s forged in the industry, while also realizing as many projects as possible. A dream project which he wrote and has hoped to direct for many years now is a film titled The Magic Shoe, a fantasy family film about a dancing, storytelling grandfather who discovers a magic shoe at the World’s Fair in the 1940s The late James Garner was once attached to star alongside Diane Lane and Helen Hunt, though the lead actor’s declining health problems lead to the production being halted indefinitely. 

Whatever the future has in store for Cowell, there’s no doubt that he’ll continue to do everything he can to enrich the filmmaking scene in Western New York. Aspiring filmmakers of all backgrounds who are based in the region will not want to miss the opportunity to be a part of the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival’s growing legacy, both at next week’s event and for many more to follow in the coming years.