By Jordan Canahai

Still from The Incredicle Adventures of Jojo

Still from The Incredicle Adventures of Jojo

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.

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