Festival of Film: Indy Rediscovers the Joys of Going to the Movies

Forget Redboxing it—audiences are rediscovering the joys of going out to the movies.

In the age of Netflix, Hulu, and HBONow, where a movie night usually means sitting on your couch with a remote in hand, film-going is a becoming a lost art. But thanks to a growing number of film festivals and a dedicated group of local cinephiles, Indianapolis has been finding its joys all over again.
Heartland, Indy’s flagship festival, got its start at a time when such an event was unheard of here. “Back in ’90, it was hard,” says Jeff Sparks, founder and president emeritus of Heartland Film. “People were like, ‘What’s a film festival? Why would I want to go?’” Fast-forward 25 years: Heartland Film Festival topped 23,000 for attendees at screenings last year and has expanded to include year-round programming. They, along with Indy Film Fest, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and half a dozen smaller film festivals, are filling Indy’s calendar with movies.

What’s drawing people out is how these groups are adding another dimension to the films they show, no glasses required. Whether it’s Heartland bringing in more than 100 filmmakers who’ll chat with you over a beer about the years they spent making their indie film, or Indy Film Fest’s Roving Cinema showing Field of Dreams at Victory Field, these aren’t just movies—they’re happenings.

The IMA, which just marked its 40th season of the Summer Nights film series, has been kicking things up a few notches under the direction of Scott Stulen, curator of audience experiences and performance. “What we’ve asked is, how do we make film something where it becomes an overall experience?” says Stulen. Recent crowds have sat in kiddie pools to watch Jaws and posed in a Psycho shower photobooth.

“I look back at growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, pre–widespread Internet,” says Stulen. “We had the same channels that everybody watched, we had the same movies everybody watched, and those became key cultural shared experiences. Maybe our parents’ generation in the ’60s had more important cultural landmarks, but in the ’80s, rather than sharing Woodstock and the civil rights movement, we watched Knight Rider and ALF, and those became our shared things.” So, from raucous nights in the outdoor amphitheater watching Heathers to debating the airspeed velocities of various sparrows, when these fans get together, it’s like a giant reunion of long-lost cinema soulmates.

“And then these wonderful things happen,” says Stulen. “The audience embraces it and takes it a step further than you would have anticipated.” During the IMA”s sold-out al fresco showing of Fargo on one chilly evening this past January, the entire front row came armed with casseroles to share in an impromptu potluck. For Cereal Cinema, Indy Film Fest’s latest series, where you can watch a classic kids’ movie and munch through a full cereal bar, executive director Craig Mince says, “we’re starting to see birthday parties, which just blows my mind. That was never part of the idea, but I love it.”

So grab a popcorn refill and mark your calendar. “Movie-watching is a social activity,” says Mince. “You’ve got to put your pants on. You’ve got to get in the car and drive somewhere and sit in a dark room with hundreds of other people and have a shared experience.”

We asked three local film buffs: What’s so great about movies?

“People connect with stories. Film takes the best aspects of everything from painting and music and writing and acting, drama—all these different things are essential for film.”
—Tim Irwin, Heartland Film Festival

“You can take just about any movie at any time, and you can get a really good gauge of what’s going on at that time in society and culture, and that’s always fascinated me.”
—Craig Mince, Indy Film Fest

“What film does better than any other cultural experience is that it gives you a moment of joy. And we don’t have that many of those. Film lets us turn off the world to just be in that moment.”
—Scott Stulen, IMA


The Ticket 2015This article appeared in The Ticket, a 2015 special publication.