Welcome to the latest installment of “Leading Questions: Wisdom from the Corner Office,” in which IBJ sits down with central Indiana’s top bosses to talk about the habits that lead to success.
As founder of Heartland Film Festival and viewer of untold thousands of movies, Jeffrey Sparks knows a “Twilight Zone”-ish, stretching-the-bounds-of-credibility happenstance when he sees one.
The festival and its not-for-profit parent group, Heartland Truly Moving Pictures, were forced to start looking for a new headquarters in early 2011. After Heartland’s 10-year office lease expired at 200 S. Meridian St., the landlord regretfully asked the organization to leave due to the space needs of an expanding tenant.
Scouting for new locations, Sparks checked out some vacant street-level space in the Murphy Art Center at 1043 Virginia Ave. He later discovered that this particular section of the building housed Universal Studios’ Granada movie theater in the 1930s and 1940s.
“Its last day of operation was Sunday, March 11, 1951,” Sparks said, “which was the day I was born.”
The 61-year-old Sparks takes the melodramatic tone of a B-movie narrator: “Little did they know that just down the street at Methodist Hospital the young person was being born who would reclaim this [space].”
Sparks, Heartland's president and CEO, was reminded of the title character in John Irving’s novel “A Prayer for Owen Meany.”
“Owen Meany always says, ‘No coincidences.’ And I don’t think it’s a coincidence,” Sparks said. “We’ve reclaimed it.”
Heartland moved into the 5,200-square-foot space in September 2011. The $300,000-plus cost of renovating and outfitting the space—including a state-of-the-art screening room—was covered by donors and sponsors.
Heartland now finds itself with a major supporting role in Fountain Square’s continuing revival. It has about 90 feet of high-profile storefront space along Virginia Avenue, along the southern leg of the Cultural Trail. On First Fridays, it plays hosts to hundreds of arts patrons watching movie shorts in its screening room.
“We have people walking by all the time,” Sparks said. “We have people sticking their head in and saying, ‘What is this?’ It’s great.”
That gives Heartland’s staff a chance to delve into the group’s three-pronged approach to inspiring independent films with a positive and humane outlook. Founded by Sparks in 1991, the group hosted its first film fest a year later and today sorts through more than 1,000 submissions every year to arrive at the annual event’s 100-plus movie roster. (This year’s festival is set for Oct. 18-27.)
Heartland also awards a seal of approval—called the “Truly Moving Picture Award”—for theatrically released films that meet its standards for uplifting content and a transformative message. In addition, Heartland offers educational programs for aspiring filmmakers and actors.
“It is confusing,” said Sparks of Heartland’s different programs. “We wrestle with it all the time. We’ve tried to make it clearer. People get it when they hear ‘Heartland Truly Moving Pictures.’ They're pictures that move you. But then they say, ‘But aren’t you a film festival?’”
Making such distinctions is one of Sparks’ jobs as chief fundraiser. Heartland is in the midst of a $12.5 million campaign, dubbed “One Film Can,” and has secured more than $10.7 million toward that goal.
In the video at top, Sparks discusses the campaign’s strategy, starting with a “silent” period in hopes of gathering a critical mass of donations and enough momentum to publicly announce the final stretch. He also expounds on his personal philosophy of finding ways of showing gratitude for gifts. That leads to a tear-jerking story about his relationship with a longtime patron with a fatal disease.
In the video below, Sparks imparts a lessons learned from the early days of the festival, when he unintentionally insulted Hollywood director and Heartland guest Sydney Pollack. He also dives into the subject of succession planning, as Heartland’s board of directors begins to prepare for a day without the group’s founder and leading light.