Since 1991, the Heartland Film Festival has brought uplifting independent films to Indianapolis every year, building a reputation with time and an impressive $100,000 grand prize for the best feature.
Then two years ago, it decided to aim a little higher.
With help from a $3.7 million grant from the Lilly Endowment Inc., the Indianapolis organization set out to make its brand so well-known to consumers that a Heartland award would be the equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval for inspirational firms.
And it's making progress. Heartland has lined up retail promotion deals for festival films, persuaded movie studios to use its logo in film ads, and convinced a local cable provider to offer independent movies to the masses.
"Outside of Indianapolis, people don't care that much about a film festival," said Heartland President Jeffrey Sparks. "If people were going to get engaged in our mission, it wasn't going to be over a film festival."
Heartland beefed up its staff, adding a consultant and public relations firm in Los Angeles. It redid the logo for its Truly Moving Picture Award-given to theatrically released, studio-backed films that fit its mission, such as "Happy Feet" and "Remember the Titans"-and changed its name to Heartland Truly Moving Pictures to take the focus off the festival.
It also became more aggressive in pitching its worth to major studios, asking them to use its award on promotional material.
In return, Heartland has established relationships with national not-for-profits ranging from the AARP to the Girl Scouts and developed lessons for them based on award winners-everything from youth literary guides tied to screenings of "Charlotte's Web" to discussion points for adults who want to start movie clubs.
"If [the studio] is not going to use the logo, we're not going to put the effort in," Sparks said. "We tell them: 'We want to do more than just give you an award, we want to support you.' The studios are beginning to see us as a one-stop shop to reach these organizations [such as AARP]."
As a result, the Truly Moving Picture Award logo has shown up on DVD covers, movie posters and even as a live link on movie Web sites.
Heartland also is rolling out its firstever retail marketing push this year to coincide with the 2007 film festival, which runs Oct. 18-26. It struck a deal with Disney and Best Buy in which the stores in nine Midwest states will feature all 16 Disney films that have won a Truly Moving Picture Award in a separate display case. The case will include information on Heartland and the award.
But have the power players in California taken note of the efforts? Sort of.
While Heartland strives to highlight uplifting work-even adult-oriented, challenging dramatic films-its image in Hollywood is still tied closely to "family friendly" fare, said Carole A. Horst, managing editor of features for Variety, a weekly trade magazine that covers the entertainment industry.
She said Heartland's more aggressive efforts to get its name out there have been noted, but its awards still "don't register in the [broader] Hollywood community."
"Companies looking to market their films to a family-friendly audience are tuned into the festival," Horst said.
Although it has been taking on more of a promotional role for theatrically released films, Heartland doesn't want to drop the ball for independent films.
For years, Heartland worked to distribute independent films via videotape and DVD. But the organization now is working through cable provider Bright House Networks to get the films seen via a free on-demand channel in central Indiana. Sparks said there's nothing to stop other cable providers from picking up the content, too, but nothing is in the works yet.
Bright House's Channel 627 offers 28 Heartland award-winners ranging from shorts to full-length features that make up 12 hours of programming. Bright House measures an on-demand channel's success by the number of program downloads it receives, and the Heartland channel already is getting about the same amount of hits as Showtime and Cinemax, said Indiana Division President Buz Nesbit.
Nesbit declined to release exact numbers but said the success is surprising because the channel is so new and offers independent, niche programming.
"We've been amazed and overwhelmed by the number of hits we've had on Heartland on demand," Nesbit said. "People can't see this programming anywhere else."
Bright House has about 63,000 digital subscribers who can access the Heartland channel.
The cable provider promotes the channel via bill inserts and ads on other programming and plans to enter the ondemand offering in some national industry competitions. The company also is considering whether to role out the free channel in other areas it serves. The Heartland films also eventually could be picked up by Bright House's contentsharing partner, Time Warner Cable. Together the two cable companies reach 24 million viewers nationwide.
"Based on the success of this, it would not surprise me at all that we would be able to find similar opportunities throughout the country," he said.