Sure, you're never going to hear a film festival under-sell its opening and closing night films. But the guys at Heartland Film Festival have a pretty good argument for why Gimme Shelter (opening night, Oct. 17) and The Book Thief (closing night, Oct. 26) are big gets, as they say, for a festival that's becoming more and more a player on the national scene.
I'm sitting down on a Friday afternoon with Tim Irwin, artistic director, and Greg Sorvig, director of marketing and communication, in the screening room at Heartland's Fountain Square headquarters; off to the side, a table's worth of part- and full-time employees is tap-tap-tapping away to put the finishing touches on the festival's website.
Irwin tells me that getting a movie like The Book Thief, a tale of literature, Nazism and hiding a guy in a basement that takes cues from The Diary of Anne Frank, is a matter of "doing the right things so that when opportunities arise, people come to you." The folks at Lionsgate were in a touch about another film, and then they just happened to mention: hey, we've got The Book Thief, too, starring Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson. And it's just about done.
The story of how Heartland went about seeing a rough cut of the film involves the overnighting of a 120 pound HDCAM deck and a frenzied drive around I-465. Suffice to say that the jury saw it and picked it for Heartland's Truly Moving Picture Award (which recognizes films that fit Heartland's mission of uplift but aren't necessarily screening at the annual festival).
And then it became an option to screen The Book Thief the film for closing night. This will be the first public screening of the film, perhaps in a work print version (with a temporary score and narrator), or maybe with all the fixings if schedules align (John Williams was knocking out the score last month). Rush is scheduled to attend, as are actress Sophie Nelisse and director Brian Percival.
This is all to say that Heartland, if you didn't notice, is a big-league festival. It gives out a ton of cash prizes: $50,000 for the narrative feature winner, $50,000 for the documentary feature winner, plus $5,000 each for the narrative and documentary short winners. That's a raise this year for the documentary winner because, according to Irwin, the costs can be just as significant for a full-scale doc as for a narrative feature — and besides, Heartland receives so many excellent docs in a given year.
Not only does Heartland have extraordinary resources, but it shows extraordinary films — and not just ones that, er, warm the heart(land) in conventional ways. Sorvig is up-front about Heartland's trajectory: "To a certain extent, we were showing some cheesy, churchy, take-your-family-to-any-of-them films a few years back."
But now, says Irwin, if a film adheres in some way to Heartland's mission to "promote positive change in people's lives through the transformational power of film," and it's good, then it's in. And a film can't necessarily be too obvious about that hopey, changey stuff either. Irwin says jury members must consider if a film is working an "overly manipulative or one-sided agenda."
As the times change at Heartland, so might the name — will the Truly Moving Pictures element stick around, given that guys like Irwin are sensitive to showing films that try a little too hard to move you? Sorvig says branding is up in the works, as is the position of CEO or president. Founder Jeff Sparks stepped down earlier this year after a six-month sabbatical, although he remains in the lead of the pack in the Heartland staff listing as president emeritus.
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