Heartland Film Festival, Jeff Sparks

“Middle America is being ignored by Hollywood,” says Jeff Sparks, a founder and director of the Heartland Film Festival. “The film industry really does ignore the rest of the country in many ways.”

Sparks wants to do something about that because he loves movies. He has been moved and inspired by them. But he is dismayed by the cheap thrills the movie business has resorted to in order to chase an increasingly teen-age audience. Too many people, he believes, are being turned off by much of what’s on offer at the multiplex.

“People stop, they get out of the habit of going to movies,” Sparks says. “We want to re-energize these people.”

In 1986, Sparks was directing the New Harmony Project, a nationally recognized annual workshop for playwrights interested in creating work informed by spiritual values and aimed at honoring human experience. His work with New Harmony prompted funders to ask if the same principles might apply to making a positive impact on film. The answer, in 1992, was the Heartland Film Festival.

Since that time, Heartland has consistently been one of the most well-endowed festivals in the country. Through its cash prizes to filmmakers and the imprimatur of its Crystal Heart Awards, Heartland has steadily grown in influence and won respect among film professionals, as well as with audiences, in Indianapolis and across the country. Last year, the festival received 529 entries, a five-fold increase over its first year.

But 2004 was a Heartland milestone for another reason. “We will look back and say that this was the year we began making a significant impact,” says Sparks, referring to the success of the feature. Because of Winn-Dixie, a film that became a grass-roots hit with audiences, thanks in large measure to its association with Heartland.

Now Sparks is beginning to hear from Hollywood, taking calls from producers who are becoming interested in making movies for audiences that the Heartland Film Festival, through its awards, its Web site listing of “Truly Moving Pictures” and its reputation for fairness and integrity, is showing it can reach. “Wouldn’t it be interesting if we could move this huge population that’s in the middle of the country to being more proactive with film?” Sparks asks.

Although Heartland was started in the midst of ongoing national controversy over family values, the festival has managed to keep from being entangled with any particular agenda or ideology. The key to its durability has been its dedication to what the festival dubs “Truly Moving Pictures”: inspiring, character-driven films that capture an element of truth about the human experience.

Ultimately, Sparks envisions Heartland acting as an advocate for all those people who feel disenfranchised by Hollywood. He’s working to develop the clout that might someday help get the green light for good films. “The hope,” he says, “is that we can build a constituency.”

-David Hoppe

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