Jeffrey L. Sparks, who has led the Heartland Film Festival since he founded the internationally known movie event more than two decades ago, is stepping down as president and CEO of parent group Heartland Truly Moving Pictures, he confirmed Tuesday morning.
Sparks, 62, will remain with the Indianapolis-based not-for-profit with the new title of founder and president emeritus, but will retire from active leadership.
His new plan includes leading a start-up company, Visioning Community LLC. The venture’s first efforts will focus on developing properties on the near-south and east sides of Indianapolis.
Fresh from a six-month sabbatical, Sparks disclosed his intentions in an email to a group of friends Monday, just days before Heartland unveils its 2013 festival schedule. He declined to provide details to IBJ about the change on Tuesday morning.
“We’re looking at a wonderful and smooth transition,” Sparks said. “And we’re looking forward to talking about it in detail at festival time.”
Sparks told IBJ last September that he and the board of directors already were giving thought to succession planning.
"The great news is that the board decided a year or year and half ago that we want to build a good team here, so that if I walk out and get hit by a bus, this place will continue to go," he said in IBJ's "Leading Questions" video feature.
Sparks founded the not-for-profit in 1991, and the group hosted its first film fest a year later. Today, it sorts through more than 1,000 submissions every year to arrive at the annual event’s roster of 100-plus films.
How will the departure of the festival’s guiding force affect this year’s Heartland events, which include more than 200 screenings and some of the top festival prize money in the country?
Festival Director Louise Henderson said that everything is “on schedule and ready to go” for this year’s edition, which will take place Oct. 17-26 at AMC Castleton Square 14, AMC Showplace Traders Point 12, and the Theater at the Wheeler Arts Community near Heartland’s Fountain Square headquarters.
“Jeff will still be doing special projects,” she added. “And he obviously has many contacts in the community. He will continue to be good ambassador for our organization.”
One of those projects, he said, will include writing a history of the festival.
Offering more than $125,000 in cash prizes, Heartland attracted a record 1,521 film submissions from 79 countries for the 2013 festival. Its mission is to “inspire filmmakers and audiences through the transformative power of film” through the festival and through its influential Truly Moving Pictures Award, which honors theatrically released films year-round.
Last year's festival drew 22,400 attendees.
In addition to the festival, Heartland offers educational programs for aspiring filmmakers and actors.