Independent filmmakers visiting Indianapolis for the Heartland Film Festival often give the event glowing reviews.
But after 14 years of screening and honoring such inspiring movies as "Remember the Titans," "The Rookie" and "Because of Winn-Dixie," organizers no longer want to rely simply on word of mouth to build a national reputation for the festival, which this year runs Oct. 13-21.
Enter a $3.7 million grant Lilly Endowment Inc. awarded the not-for-profit last month to help establish it as an internationally recognized resource for filmmakers, and a premier showcase for their projects.
"A lot of our films just disappear," said Jeffrey Sparks, president of the not-forprofit. "That's been a frustration of ours, the board and the endowment. If we can put people in seats ... when we get behind a film and have an impact, the industry will listen."
Too often, though, good-quality films aren't as easy to sell as bad ones with easyto-market premises (which explains why there are two Deuce Bigalow movies). And even among independent-film-festival followers, Heartland has struggled to stick out from a crowd of roughly 500 festivals. With an annual budget of more than $1 million, though, Heartland is among the larger events.
Beni Matias, executive director of the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers in New York City, said she was unfamiliar with the Heartland Film Festival.
Before finding its listing in the association's database, she wondered whether Heartland was the event launched by Michael Moore. The controversial director does host a film festival, but it's called the Traverse City Film Festival, and it's held in Moore's hometown in Michigan.
Brian Brooks, associate editor of indieWire-which dubs itself as the leading daily source for independent films, documentaries, world cinema and film festivals-said he is aware of Heartland, but knows nothing about it.
To that end, Sparks, 54, and his board members are plotting a strategy, using the endowment, to lift Heartland's persona. The festival still is negotiating a large element of the plan, Sparks said, but a gener- al blueprint exists.
One of the main pieces involves partnering with large, national organizations that can help promote Heartland movies to large audiences. The effort began last year when the Washington, D.C.-based National Human Services Assembly, an association of national not-for-profits dedicated to health and human services, helped endorse "Because of Winn-Dixie."
The assembly, whose membership includes the National Collaboration of Youth, provided the book on which the film is based to the 43 youth development and human services organizations that make up the collaboration. The text version reached children involved in such national organizations as YMCA of the USA, YWCA USA and the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
The assembly this year is promoting "Dreamer: Inspired By A True Story," starring Dakota Fanning, Kurt Russell and Elisabeth Shue. Similar to "Because of Winn-Dixie," which told the story of a girl and her dog, "Dreamer" is about a girl and a racehorse.
Not all Heartland films are family films, however. The festival has shown "Schindler's List," "Saving Private Ryan" and "Dead Man Walking."
Irv Katz, president of the assembly and former executive director of the United Way of Central Indiana, thinks the affiliation with Heartland fits well with his agency's mission.
"We were approached by Heartland to connect young people and their families with uplifting films, instead of movies like 'Gone In 60 Seconds,'" said Katz, referring to the Nicolas Cage action flick that's heavy on car chases and light on substance. "Part of our objective is to encourage young people to read for fun."
At the other end of the spectrum, Heartland is courting the older generation through a partnership with AARP. The demographic has the time and money to go to the movies, Sparks said, but the provocative nature of most mainstream films has driven seniors away "in droves."
The older age group helped "Because of Winn-Dixie" reach No. 3 at the box office, though, after a program brought the book to senior centers across the country. The movie's strong showing bolstered Heartland's confidence. The decision by pictures such as "Remember the Titans" to use the festival's Truly Moving Pictures logo as advertising also helped.
Another aspect of the initiative is to develop an active Web site people will want to visit, Sparks said. Those visitors can then help spread the word about the films Heartland showcases.
Grant follows study
In September 2004, Heartland received a small grant from the Lilly Endowment and the Anschutz Family Foundation in Denver to help develop a national strategy. With part of the money, Heartland recruited Johnson Grossnickel & Associates Inc., a philanthropic consultant based in Franklin, to interview film-industry types and report their recommendations on how Heartland could take its message to a national audience.
Johnson Grossnickel consulted with such folks as Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios; Kurt Hall, chairman and CEO of Regal Entertainment Group; and Michael Tollin, a founding partner of Tollin-Robbins Productions.
Regal is the largest movie theater chain in the United States.
Tollin, a screenwriter, producer and director, has been involved in films such as "Coach Carter" and "Radio," and TV shows "Smallville and "One Tree Hill."
They agreed the collaboration with the National Human Services Assembly is key, and partnerships with other national organizations could further Heartland's reputation.
Those surveyed also told Johnson Grossnickel that they are willing to help Heartland achieve its goal, but that Sparks and management need to improve communications with them. That might require more trips to Los Angeles, Sparks said.
Inspired by the findings, Lilly Endowment followed with its $3.7 million grant.
Michael Husain, president of locally based Pathway Productions Co., will show his first film this year at the festival. The documentary, "The Innocent," explores the lives of former death-row inmates wrongfully convicted of heinous crimes.
Husain thinks Heartland is at a stage where it can become more recognizable.
"We didn't know if we would be able to get into a festival the caliber of Heartland," he said. "And when we did, it was a huge goal for us. You're trying to find distribution and an audience for your piece, and Heartland has the type of audience where you can get that."
This year's Heartland event will feature 12 full-length films and 11 short presentations.
"Dreamer" will kick off the festivities, and "Duma" will close them. "The 12 Dogs of Christmas" will be shown at the Kids' Movie Party Oct. 16. Films are shown at The Indiana History Center, Castleton Arts and AMC Theatres in Greenwood.