Q&A With Heartland Film CEO Michael Ault

heartland film festival CEO Michael Ault
Heartland Film CEO Michael Ault standing on the southwest quad of Monument Circle
Michael Ault, CEO of Heartland Film

What’s your favorite film?

I grew up loving To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s funny, because I usually ask other people what their favorite movie is. I ask because knowing what kind of film inspires or entertains them gives me insight into what makes them tick. Whether it’s a Western or a musical or horror, it’s helpful to know what sort of film really triggers that person.

Public interest in awards shows like the Oscars has dropped off precipitously. Have you seen anything similar in the movie festival world?

We’ve had a lot of issues over the last couple of years, but I’m not sure it had anything to do with lack of interest. COVID shut down the theater industry, and it forced us to cancel events and do virtual gatherings. But in 2020, our attendance numbers actually increased by something like 20 percent. It was people buying virtual packages and virtual passes so they could watch at home. We haven’t seen that kind of audience increase in 10 years. We thought it might be an anomaly, but those numbers stayed consistent for 2021, and continue to increase. This month, along with the in-theater experience, we’re also still offering the virtual package. So we’re able to capture two audiences: people who want to watch on their own and the ones who want to come to the theater.

Is the Heartland streaming pass a pandemic anomaly or the new normal?

That’s a tough question because we just don’t know. We did some surveys in 2020, asking why our members bought streaming passes and didn’t come to the theater. We thought they would say, “Because we were afraid of COVID in a theater.” But that was only about 20 percent of the responses. Eighty percent said it was just more convenient. The thing is, when a filmmaker creates a film, it’s so that you can watch it on the big screen. That’s the experience we want to offer. Streaming has its place, but we’re trying to make it not a significant place because we want people to actually come to the theaters and experience the festival in person. Plus, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may have something to say about it down the road. In the past, if a film wanted to be nominated for an Academy Award, it always had to have a theatrical release.

How many film submissions did you get this year?

Almost 3,700. It’s a very competitive festival because we’re one of the top film events in the world that gives away prize money.

Do you have any role in picking the winners?

No, we have a sanctioned jury. Several jury members watch all the films, and each movie is graded and ranked. The top films make it to our final jury, which selects the ones that make it into the festival. And out of those, the top-ranking films go to our award jury, who actually establish the winning films for each category.

Over the years, the festival’s offerings have bounced back and forth between edgy and almost Hallmark-y. Where are you on that spectrum?

It’s going to be more about where we are currently as a society. I want to tell stories that are meaningful to our audiences in that moment. We don’t really have a firm definition for a Heartland film, but we do know that it tells a story that’s meaningful. We also have to believe it’s quality work, not just for inspiration and entertainment, but for education as well. We’ve gotten away from very religious and political messages. 

In addition to this month’s big event, what else are you working on?

We’re doing a lot of what I like to call “best of” fests. We pull together some of our best films and take them on the road. We do that in Franklin at the Historic Artcraft Theatre. Before COVID, we had worked out similar arrangements with other theaters, and we need to reestablish those. Right now, we’re working on taking something down to Bloomington. During the holidays, we’ll be doing a new program called Merry Merry Movie Nights. And next April, we’ll offer the first edition of a big fundraiser called Cinemania. Oddly, Heartland has never done its own fundraising event, so this is a first for us.

You’ve said in the past that you want Heartland to connect with the community more, and you felt it hadn’t done a good job of that in the past. How are you going to make that happen?

I’ve always been in development, and I worked for Methodist Hospital for 25 years. One of the things we did well there was connect with other nonprofit organizations. When I started at Heartland, we had all these members and donors and sponsors, and that’s great, but we weren’t connecting with groups outside of our sponsorships. So I created a position last year called “community engagement and educational outreach coordinator.” The job is basically connecting with nonprofits, introducing them to Heartland, and connecting them to relevant films. For instance, we have a film about food insecurity that we showed to the staff at Second Helpings. We partner with them, get their people to come and watch this film, and it’s an educational thing we can supply.

So you’re basically trying to raise your profile?

Yes, because so many people in this community don’t have a clue what Heartland Film is, which blows my mind because we’ve been here for more than 30 years. Perhaps it’s because we’ve gone from Hallmark-y to edgy movies to this and that, and some people support that or want nothing to do with it. If we’re not offering their style of movie, they just turn us off. But I think now we offer something for everybody. We don’t identify ourselves as any one genre. We’re pretty open to everything.

Where would you like the festival to be in five years?

I would love to see the city really get behind it. If you go to other festivals like Sundance or Telluride, the entire city has signs everywhere advertising their festival. There’s corporate support, city support, government support. Everybody is really behind it and promotes it. I’ve not seen that since I’ve been with Heartland. We do have a bit of government and business support, but for a city the size of Indianapolis, we need to do 10 times as much. Not necessarily by writing checks—though we would love that—but just attending the events. Around the world, the biggest film festivals are considered huge assets to the cities that host them. We’re bringing something really cool to Indianapolis.

For our 10 picks from this year’s film festival, click here