Let's start with a long view as NUVO edges toward its 25th anniversary year. Over the past quarter-century, we've gained two major film festivals, several more niche fests, a fully equipped repertory cinema, at least one animation house and sucessful genre filmmakers. We've also gained and lost an independent art house, a ton of video stores, funding to bring productions to the state, and a lot of talents who had to go elsewhere for film school or industry jobs. To everything, there is a season, no doubt, but there's plenty to celebrate from the past year when it comes to local film.
Heartland Film is hitting its stride after relocating to Fountain Square, with a new president (Stuart Lowry) in place for his first fest, a core of younger staff (including the ambitious Tim Irwin, who has expanded the scope of festival programming without losing sight of its uplifting mission) — and a tighter-than-ever connection to the industry. November's advance screening of The Judge was quite a coup. The film is a tepid, Midwest-as-barometer-of-truth psychodrama, but who cares when Robert Downey, Jr. shows up to a Castleton theater? And how about one more Hollywood tie? Heartland remains a qualifier for Oscar short films. Plus a recent NEA grant goes to show that Heartland is reaching beyond its traditional local funding base. Here's hoping we'll continue to see robust programming in Heartland's Fountain Square theater and throughout the city — and not just on First Fridays!
Indy Film Fest has always been Heartland's inferior in terms of funding, perhaps because it doesn't have a family-friendly mission. But it serves as a necessary counterpoint to Heartland, offering a wider variety of programming, including films that aren't at all uplifting. So I wonder what Indy Film Fest might do to better differentiate itself from Heartland after a year when the festivals shared several films. Offer more experimental fare (Ann Arbor's renowned avant-garde fest might be a good partner)? Do some retrospectives (remember when documentarian Albert Maysles was an honored guest)? Screen in venues throughout town instead of sticking to home base at the IMA? Not that Indy Film Fest necessarily needs fixing — and it deserves kudos for its successful and adventurous year-round film series.
I can think of one area where a little money could go a long way: FILM Indiana, whose mandate is to encourage local and out-of-state production companies to film in the state, doesn't seem to have the resources to go after big feature film projects like The Fault in Our Stars, which was, of course, lensed in Pittsburgh, standing in for Indianapolis. And that's a step back from how it was in the '90s, when pretty big indie productions like Going All the Way were shot in our backyard. Did our legislators do a serious cost-benefit comparison and decide that other Midwestern states have it wrong and it's not worth trying to attract Hollywood? Or has our "world's worst" legislature (thanks to Harrison Ullman for the description) just been too distracted by their attempts to stem the tide of history?
In any event, here's something to look out for in 2015: While Medora wasn't the arthouse success it could've been (it was better than 2011 Best Documentary Oscar winner Undefeated), it was a ratings success on PBS's Independent Lens this February and it consistently moved audiences to tears as it played around the state last year. Andrew Cohn, who co-directed the film, is back in the state making Night School, a documentary about adults earning their high school diploma. It's being funded in part by a MacArthur Grant and could put the national spotlight on an innovative local program.