Jeff Sparks at the podium and on the big screens at the Awards Gala last year.
By Madelyn Ritrosky
It’s October again, and that means certain autumnal things colorful leaves and shedding trees, cooler air (thank goodness) and shorter days… and the Heartland Film Festival.
Begun in 1992, the Indianapolis festival runs October 18-26, 2007. Film aficionados can watch over 40 films: shorts, documentaries, dramatic features, previews, special-event premiere films ready for theatrical release, and even a few classic movies.
As festival director Jeffrey Sparks enthusiastically declared, “I just saw one of the jury members, who said, ‘This is definitely the strongest group of films I’ve seen in the four years I’ve been on the jury.’ It’s a very diverse group of films as well as being extremely strong. ”
I was amazed when Sparks, head of Heartland Truly Moving Pictures, told me that 620 films were submitted to the Heartland Film Festival this year. Last year, the festival experienced a “huge increase” in entries, and while this year the overall numbers are the same, there was a significant jump in feature films while shorts declined. “We’re getting a lot higher profile films for independent films,” he said.
They are also attracting attention for the special event screenings. “The studios are supporting the films they give us for Opening and Closing Nights by bringing in the filmmakers. I chose them because they said they’re going to do everything they can. For Opening Night’s August Rush, the producer is the visionary behind the film. He’s the one who got it started and put it through, so I’m thrilled to have him here.”
Photo right: Jonathan Rhys Meyers (left) and Keri Russell in August Rush, Heartland’s Opening Night film.
All of this indicates that Heartland, which offers a $100,000 grand prize to the best dramatic feature, is reaching the big time on the American film festival circuit. During the year, Sparks travels to Los Angeles and, to a lesser extent, New York, promoting the festival and the Truly Moving Picture Awards to studio executives and producers. He sometimes feels like he’s “burning the candle at both ends.”
Earlier this year, it was decided to fully merge the Heartland Film Festival and the Truly Moving Picture (TMP) Awards under the name Heartland Truly Moving Pictures as the parent organization. The TMP Awards are given throughout the year to theatrically released films. According to Sparks, the combined name “goes out easier” in promotional efforts.
Sparks said the TMP Awards are what he’s “really promoting” throughout the year. In fact, he said, “I think it’s what has helped elevate our festival, because we’re more than just a festival.” The philosophy underlying the festival and the awards is to recognize films that convey positive ways of seeing, being in, and dealing with the world that there is hope.
Jeff Sparks is very much interested in “how culture impacts people. And film is a tremendous part of shaping culture.” Some filmmakers acknowledge this and strive to participate in meaningful ways. Although Sparks is not a filmmaker himself, he has an MFA in theater directing and has always been interested in film. The festival became a way for him to participate more directly, to “have an impact on culture, focused in on film.”
Photo left: Mick (William Baldwin), Roxie (Lisa Guerrero) and Rocky Plumm (Owen Pierce) - the featherweight takes the prize. A Plumm Summer, the Family Movie Event.
One way, among many, that he directly participates is by watching some of the festival submissions. This year, he saw about 80 of the films. There is staff input as well, and then three past Crystal Heart Award winners pick the finalists for the grand prizes. In both the dramatic and documentary feature categories, five films compete for the top prize. The documentary winner receives $25,000. Other “official selections” round out the festival’s screenings.
It is the Truly Moving Pictures jury which picks the grand prize-winning films, with the winners revealed at the Awards Gala two days into the festival. While many screenings offer Q&A sessions with the filmmakers on their first night, it is the Gala that generally boasts name actors as presenters.
Like with the special event films, including the Family Movie Event, it’s the studios who line up talent to participate in the Gala. Typically, the actors appeared in TMP Award-winning movies, such as Jon Voight’s presence last year as a result of his role in Glory Road.
Additionally, the Heartland Film Festival now has a Los Angeles-based public relations firm to go with its regional, Indianapolis-based PR firm. Sparks noted that the former programmer for the AFI film festival, Nancy Collet, serves as an official consultant to Heartland. And, he was pleased to mention that there is now Heartland On Demand on the Bright House Network, which is available on digital cable in Indianapolis and a few other Indiana locales. For Jeff Sparks and all film lovers, that is definitely “exciting.”
Autumn is an exciting time of year it has always been my favorite. And the Heartland Film Festival adds the right amount of extra pizzazz to a Midwest October.