Germantown-born filmmaker Rel Dowdell, now in his mid-thirties, made a double commitment when he chose his career, despite its obvious risks.
It wasn’t just his passion for filmmaking that would drive him after earning a graduate degree in film from Boston University.
“The money to go to graduate film school was astronomically high,” said Dowdell, whose parents, both career schoolteachers, mortgaged their house to help pay for his education. “Once they made that commitment to me, I wanted to make sure I made the commitment back to them.
“A lot of people who go to film school never make a film, but I didn’t want to say that I was going to film school, and then turn my back on it years later.”
Special premiere on Friday
Now, having grossed an impressive $20 million on his very first independent film, Dowdell teamed with Philly First Entertainment to make his second full-length feature.
Through a distribution deal with AMC Theaters and Barnholtz Entertainment, “Changing the Game” will open May 11 in Philadelphia, New York City, Washington DC, Atlanta and Chicago, with a nationwide release to follow.
A private premiere for cast, crew and special guests will take place on Friday at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Dowdell, who attended middle school at Masterman and graduated from Central High School, went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in English from Fisk University in Tennessee. A professor there noticed Dowdell’s highly visual writing style, and suggested that Dowdell think about a career in film.
Given his family’s sacrifice to send him to school, after so many years of hard work on both sides, “it’s a blessing that my parents can come to the premiere.”
Building a career
Even after achieving his dream education, a chance at success in the industry is “a severe crapshoot,” Dowdell said, discussing the challenges of getting a film made and achieving widespread theatrical release.
“I just always thought that people who made films fell into that somehow,” Dowdell said of early perceptions of the industry. “Or, it was some type of scientific hierarchy that I was just not privy to. When I was an undergrad, I didn’t really know that you could get an advanced degree in film.”
His first movie, “Train Ride,” was born out of a short film that was his senior thesis at BU. It’s the story of a few college seniors who assault a female student under the influence of “the date-rape drug.” The aftermath of the crime goes on to affect the perpetrators as much as the victim.
Dowdell’s own fearlessness led to a major casting coup, when he finagled his way backstage at a production of “A Raisin in the Sun” starring the renowned Esther Rolle. She agreed to read his script and ended up appearing in both the original short film and the later full-length feature. It was the last film she appeared in before her death in 1998.
With a mission to team an experienced cast with promising unknowns, Dowdell also noticed an NYU grad student named Wood Harris.
“This guy could be a lead actor,” Dowdell thought. “He just needs a break.”
Harris had his first lead role in “Train Ride,” and subsequently appeared in “Remember the Titans” alongside Denzel Washington, as well as portraying the character Avon Barksdale on HBO’s “The Wire.”
Latest story based in North Philly
Dowdell wrote and directed “Changing the Game.” From fundraising to production to securing a distribution deal, it was seven years in the making.
It’s the story of a young African-American man born in North Philadelphia’s toughest neighborhood in the 1980s.
“I wanted to show the African-American young person who, no matter how bad his environment is, can transcend his surroundings with intelligence and spiritual value instead of doing something destructive,” Dowdell said.
Protagonist Darrell Barnes is played by actor Sean Riggs (“Stomp the Yard”), in his first lead role. Barnes escapes major personal tragedy to graduate from two of Philadelphia’s top schools and launch a Wall Street career.
Dowdell, who warned that there are plenty of “Hitchcockian” plot twists, was quick to point out that the film’s title refers to more than its plot.
“Where most African-American films deal only with the African-American in the African-American community, my film breaks the stereotype because [Barnes] encounters everybody in the world,” Dowdell said of the film’s multi-racial cast and international settings.
He said he hopes the story will appeal to audiences of all races.
“You’re making a big movie on a shoestring; that’s the challenge,” Dowdell said of crafting the film, which was shot entirely in Philadelphia, including scenes in North Philadelphia, Center City and Laurel Hill Cemetery.
Of merging good fortune with hard work, he added, “Only a handful of independent films ever see broad release. Treat the craft with respect and then you’ll get out of it what you put into it.”