The Heartland Film Festival Returns To Its Sentimental Days

When the Heartland founder retired a few years ago, the incoming leadership took the event in a bold new direction. Now that the board has effectively ushered those people out, the festival appears to be headed for a flashback.
One summer afternoon in 2014, Jim Naremore drove to Fountain Square for a meeting at the offices of Heartland Film. Naremore served on the executive committee for narrative short films, the team that chooses the grand prize–winner, and they planned to pick their favorite that day. A lot was at stake. The short that took home the top honor would automatically qualify for Oscar consideration that winter in addition to earning $5,000, both rare things in the short-film world.
A gauntlet of judges had already sifted through the 1,000 or so first-round submissions, leaving just five movies still in contention for the grand prize. Naremore watched the remaining shorts and ranked them from most deserving to least. Near the top of his list was Houses with Small Windows, a dark film about an honor killing set in rural Turkey. The story was slow and lingering, but beautifully shot. There was no dialogue, and the movie was extremely tense, but it challenged viewers with hard truths about human nature. Naremore felt sure it would be a favorite for the top spot. When the group sat down to discuss the films, however, he was shocked at how low some of the other committee members had ranked it.
He looked around the room, wondering how such a powerful film could be overlooked. Another screener spoke first, saying that she “hated” the film because it didn’t make her feel anything. Shocked, Naremore argued his case: “It obviously made you feel angry, and that’s what it was supposed to do.” But the other committee member didn’t waver. “We don’t need films that make us feel angry,” he recalls her saying.
In the end, a far less controversial film—Record, about a father striving to connect with his blind daughter—took home the money. “It was one of those situations where we all had to compromise,” Naremore says, thinking back on the incident. “So the least confrontational movie won.”
Even if Houses with Small Windows didn’t claim the top prize, its mere presence at the festival would have been unthinkable just a few years prior. Founded by a devout Christian with the goal of promoting inspiring films, Heartland spent decades building a brand on optimism and traditional values. When that founder retired in 2013, the new leaders began stocking the projectors with much edgier films. (Disclosure: The author worked seasonally at Heartland during this period.) For three years, Heartland had more in common with the avant-garde Indy Film Fest than it did its own Hallmark-y past. Audiences kept growing. Film submissions increased. Which made it that much more surprising to some when the president resigned in December 2015, and the artistic director followed suit not long before last year’s festival.
As Heartland hits theaters this month (October 12–22), the event returns to its founding principles. How that affects attendance and reputation remains to be seen. But this much is certain: Those who gravitate to heartwarming films will have plenty to choose from once again this year.
The Heartland Film Festival story began 31 years ago in an unlikely place: a treatment center for emotionally disturbed children near Crawfordsville. There, a manager named Jeff Sparks had grown increasingly frustrated with the ugliness of pop culture consumed by those kids—salacious television shows, music that tore people down. In 1986, Sparks applied for and won a $3,500 grant from the Creative Gift Foundation, a group that supports Christian causes. With the money, he brought several friends from around the country to Indianapolis for a weekend. The goal? Come up with ideas that would have a positive impact on American culture. Given Sparks’s MFA in theater and his desire to work in arts management, the group focused on concepts rooted in film and television.
From that weekend, two ideas were born. One was The New Harmony Project, an annual incubator for writers in New Harmony, Indiana. That took off immediately and still operates today. But the other idea—a festival that would honor filmmakers whose work expressed “hope and respect for the positive values of life”—took more time to develop. After pouring his free time into The New Harmony Project for four years, Sparks sent another grant application to the Stratford Foundation, a group that funds the arts, pitching several ideas. Only one bullet point mentioned the film festival, but the grant administrators loved it. Sparks won the money, and over the next few months, he quit his job at the youth center, put together a small staff, and founded a nonprofit organization, Truly Moving Pictures. In 1992, the group hosted the first Heartland Film Festival—a significantly smaller affair than it is today. Just 18 new films screened over four days, along with a few classics like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Secret of NIMH, and The Sound of Music.
Although Sparks intended to start a film festival with broad appeal, it developed a reputation for showing heartwarming, Christian-friendly flicks. “I think it goes back to the fact that it’s founded by a Christian and it’s called Heartland Film Festival and it’s focused on positive films, so people just automatically make that jump,” Sparks says. But there was always a tension between the faith shared by many of the founding board members and the desire to be a mainstream festival that simply promoted positive films, even if they had elements Christians might be uncomfortable with. Early on, one of the underwriting founders, Ava Memmen, told Sparks, “You cannot make your faith too central.” He replied, “I won’t, but it’s who I am.”
Sparks’s idea of films that pushed the envelope were Schindler’s List and The Boy in the Striped Pajamas—difficult stories, but not ones likely to offend socially conservative Hoosiers. “There have always been good films that didn’t make it in,” says Sandy Pagano, a submissions screener who has volunteered since 2007. Sparks admits the festival sometimes has avoided movies with sexual content.
Despite its reputation for sentimentality, the festival grew steadily over the next two decades. In 1998, it expanded to a seven-day program, and by 2001 switched to an 11-day format. It started screening 26 movies in 2002, and then jumped to 42 in 2007. Then the Great Recession hit. The economic downturn was rough on all nonprofits. Making matters worse for Heartland, three of its major financial contributors—LaRita Boren, Ava Memmen, and Margot Eccles—died in a two-year period beginning in 2011. In 2012, Sparks was also going through a divorce and other personal challenges at home, and the board suggested he take a sabbatical. He decided to leave permanently in 2013.
Sparks had been the festival’s visionary from the beginning, and his departure left open not only a position but also the direction of the nonprofit’s future. As it turned out, a couple of key players with very different ideas had been waiting for their moment in the spotlight.
In the wake of Sparks’s departure, things at Heartland changed quickly. The board named Stuart Lowry, who had been chief operations officer, president. Lowry had a bold new vision for the festival’s future. First on the docket: dropping the name Heartland Truly Moving Pictures and rebranding the organization as simply Heartland Film. The new president also wanted to increase the festival’s attendance (especially among younger audiences) and attract more Hollywood stars who would bring the organization clout in the larger film world.
Luckily for Lowry, Heartland had become an Oscar-qualifying festival two years before he took over in 2013. Submissions had spiked as a result, leading to a wider variety of films to choose from. The new artistic director, Tim Irwin, saw this as a chance to bring a more diverse selection of movies to the audience, including ones that challenged moviegoers more. Titles like India’s Daughter, an unflinching documentary about a violent gang rape, and The Referee, a quirky black-and-white Italian comedy about a soccer referee, began to appear on the marquee.
By most measures, it seemed to be working. The years 2013 and 2014 saw the festival post its top two attendance totals, peaking at 24,836 moviegoers. Stars like Vanessa Hudgens, Robert Downey Jr., and Geoffrey Rush made red-carpet appearances to promote their projects. The short film The Phone Call screened at the 2014 festival and went on to win the Academy Award for best live-action short film in 2015. The organization landed a $20,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant to support that year’s festival, and the number of film submissions and festival selections increased each October. But despite the growth, some of the changes didn’t sit well with everyone on the board. “There was a lot of discussion after the 2015 festival,” says Irwin. “There was some concern about the seriousness of the films.” Naremore, the screening committee member, recalls hearing the new criteria: “No more war films, no more rape films, no more foreign films with subtitles.”
Almost as quickly as the changes had materialized, they vanished. Lowry resigned suddenly in December 2015, citing personal reasons. When asked if disagreements with the board had led to Lowry’s resignation, or if he had been pushed out, Heartland’s director of programming and marketing, Greg Sorvig, mentioned a difference in management style and philosophy. Lowry declined to comment for this story. Irwin, a festival employee since 2009, also stepped down in August 2016. Soon after, others, including leadership and volunteers, left for a variety of reasons.
“There’s that golden rule: Whoever has the gold makes the rules,” Naremore says. “A lot of the people backing the festival have an artistic vision that goes back to the original vision of the program. I think there are people in positions of power who feel like Heartland strayed from some path it was on, and we need to rein it back in.”
Stan Soderstrom, chairman of the Heartland board, doesn’t exactly disagree. “The festival really went through a few years of soul-searching about what a Heartland film is,” he says. “While it might have represented some pain at the time, it was probably good for the organization and for some of the people who decided to step aside to go a different direction.”
This month, the Heartland Film Festival features movies such as Red Dog: True Blue, a family-friendly feature about a young Aussie boy and his scrappy pup. It’s a sequel to Red Dog, a PG-rated fan favorite that won the grand prize back in 2011, and it’s up for the grand prize in its category. Craig Prater, the former director of the Palm Springs International Film Festival who replaced Lowry as Heartland president in August 2016, says the event will remain true to its core because that’s what got the organization where it is today. From his perspective, the festival doesn’t need edgy flicks to sell itself to audiences or auteurs. “Our goal is to expose what we’ve done to the world,” he says, “and that will bring in new audiences, new filmmakers, and new films.”
But not everyone is convinced that a lineup harkening back to earlier festivals is the best way to achieve that growth. “The festival has so much potential,” says Claire Turner, a volunteer Heartland film screener since 2013. “It has name recognition. Indy is a growing city with a growing arts community. Heartland was in the perfect position to really take off. Then Stuart [Lowry] and Tim [Irwin] left, and now it feels like they’re going back to where they started.”
Jon Vickers, the director of Indiana University Cinema, has been programming films and attending many of the major festivals for more than two decades. According to Vickers, Heartland’s evolution over the past few years was both natural and necessary. “Broadening the interpretation of the mission gives the festival flexibility to expand audiences and types of experiences,” he says. “That can be accomplished while respecting what has made Heartland successful for the past 25 years.” The notion that Heartland has to choose between positive films and difficult ones is a false dichotomy, in his opinion. Other festivals cater to a wide range of interests by creating different sections, offering films in various niches so viewers know what they’re getting into before sitting down.
Heartland Film’s current mission is simply “to inspire filmmakers and audiences through the transformative power of film.” But 25 years after its founding, the festival can’t seem to shake its original mission of “expressing hope and respect for the positive values of life.” Although Sparks no longer works at Heartland, he still attends the festival each year, and has kept his finger on the pulse of the organization since his retirement. “I was never in full agreement with decisions that were made by the staff after I left, and there were some bumps in the road,” he says. “But Heartland made it through, and I think it’s stronger today than it’s ever been.”
As always, the box office will decide.