New Heartland prez wants to add staff, national sponsors

Stuart Lowry joined Heartland Truly Moving Pictures in 2012 as chief operating officer. This month, he was elevated from supporting player for the not-for-profit to headliner, filling the role vacated by longtime Heartland President Jeffrey Sparks.

So, cue the "Coming Attractions" reel.

Stuart Lowry mugStuart Lowry

Lowry says Heartland soon will announce a series of multi-year sponsor partnerships, something that has proven difficult to land post-economic downturn. The 22-year-old arts organization also will grow its Heartland Roadshow initiative, where movies are screened outside of the confines of its annual Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis.

New hires also could be in the wings. This year, the group employed seven full-timers and one part-time employee. In 2014, it hopes to upgrade to 10 full-time positions.

“We’ve survived on a staff model that needs to be elevated,” Lowry told IBJ. “It’s a young, talented team that has accomplished a lot. But going forward, I want to increase the staff model while also cultivating more support from national sponsors.”

The focus of the group will remain the same—"to inspire filmmakers and audiences through the transformative power of film,” as the mission statement reads.

“We don’t have problems on our brand side,” Lowry said. “Our job is to make sure we message what we are doing to bring back cash sponsors. We’re very revenue-heavy during the festival. We have to figure out how to spread that out.”

The group takes a three-pronged approach to encouraging 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 annually to arrive at the event’s 100-plus movie roster.

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.

Lowry, a Dartmouth College graduate with a long history of work for local not-for-profits—including White River State Park and The Children's Museum of Indianapolis—said that Heartland needs to apply the “Merlin effect” in order to continue to grow.

“We really have to keep the wisdom and history of the past, and we need to grow younger,” he said, referring to staff, audience and attitude. “ [But] we are still mission-driven. We’re very careful in our [film] selection. And we’ve seen record attendance and diversity in our audience.”

Attendance for screenings during ths year's 10-day Heartland festival in October hit about 24,000 viewers, which was a record. This year's event also attracted a record number of film submissions—1,521, an 18-percent increase over the previous record of 1,292 in 2012. The festival selected 134 films for screenings, a few notches above the record of 129 in 2011.

Sparks said the festival's success this year was a testament to the group's smooth transition to new leadership.

"Heartland is in good hands," said Sparks, who stepped down to president emeritus in August. "Stuart has been with Heartland for two festivals now, and I'm confident in his ability to embody Heartland's spirit, mission and legacy."

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