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Local international film fest growing by leaps and bounds: But still small potatoes compared with Heartland

April 9, 2007

The screen comes alive with the tale of a woman trying to track down her on-thelam husband even as she deals with her imprisoned brother and a grown son addicted to porn. The next night features a violence-packed trilogy of films about warring Asian gangs.

Toto, we're not at the Heartland Film Festival anymore.

No, the 191 films set to be screened at the Indianapolis International Film Festival starting this month are grittier-helping it build a reputation for attracting a younger, hipper crowd than the moreestablished, feel-good event.

"I'm a big fan of Heartland," said Greg Malone, president of the Indiana Media Industry Network. "But one of the things that's sort of striking is that it draws a much older crowd, a lot of middle-class white folks well past 30. [IIFF] definitely fills a niche that's much edgier."

Malone, 50, went to a couple of IIFF screenings last year and found himself in the distinct minority. At one film from a Sikh director, most of the crowd was of Indian descent. At another, he was one of only a handful of people older than 30.

IIFF founder and Director Brian Owens said he's perfectly happy to be the smaller, scruffier sibling.

"An uplifting film is magnificent," Owens said. "But sometimes it's easier to recognize the light side of life when you've seen that the darkness is there."

The festival, which is run as a not-forprofit branch of the Indiana Film Society, has grown quickly since its 2004 debut. But it's still small potatoes when compared with Heartland, which awarded $200,000 in prize money and attracted more than 21,000 to screenings last year-easily quadrupling IIFF's 2006 attendance.

Heartland's CEO Jeffrey Sparks said the smaller festival is a great addition to the local film scene.

"Sixteen years ago, I'm not sure that a lot of people in Indianapolis knew what a film festival was," Sparks said. Now, he said, the market is ready to support two, especially because they have such different feels. Other observers say Heartland paved the way for IIFF.

"Heartland really set all this up in many ways," said Rodger Smith, director of the Institute for Digital Entertainment & Education at Ball State University. "But it's grown to ... set a pretty high bar for entrants, leaving a need for a place where lower-budget films can make the rounds locally."

IIFF certainly has experienced rapid growth-screening 72 percent more films this year than in its first year and hoping to reach attendance of 10,000. Last year's audience was just under 5,000 and even that was twice as large as 2004.

"What we've been able to do by 2007 is on par with where we expected to be in our 10th year," said Owens, who is working with a $98,000 budget.

And that's true despite offering "miniscule" cash prizes totaling just $5,000. The festival's assistant director credits the success in part to the festival's ability to throw a heck of a party.

"Filmmakers want to be shown a good time," said Scott Lowe. If a cash-strapped director wants to attend, for example, organizers find him a place to stay for free and volunteers drive him to different events. "You build a reputation of being a fun festival."

IIFF has grown to the point that it can catch the ear of studios willing to provide free films in exchange for publicity. The festival's first year, only Lion's Gate and Think Films were interested. This year, Owens said, Miramax was calling him to place films.

The sponsor base is increasing too. Mercedes, Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance and Fifth Third Bank have jumped aboard this year as underwriters.

Fifth Third signed on after partnering with the Central Indiana Community Foundation to host a screening of "The Ultimate Gift" for investment clients and prospects. So many invitees responded that the bank had to set up a waiting list for tickets, said spokeswoman Natalie Guzman.

So officials were receptive when IIFF offered a sponsorship a week later.

"This is a unique way to entertain clients and support the community," Guzman said.

While things are looking up, Owens' aspirations for the next few years are fairly simple. He wants to hold steady at 170-200 films while increasing the sponsorship base to a level that would support cash prizes of at least $50,000.

And someday, the former caseworker at the Midtown Mental Health Clinic wants to earn a salary. He's been working for the festival full time since early 2004 but has yet to bring home a paycheck.


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