Stuart Lowry's appointment as Heartland Film president in Dec. 2013 was something of a changing of the guard. Jeffrey Sparks founded the organization in 1992 and was, in those early years, almost a one-man show — a staff member mentions that he screened 16mm screeners in his basement to decide what he'd include in festivals, which, if nothing else, underscores just how much film technology has changed in the transition to digital. Sparks stepped down in August 2013 after a sabbatical; Lowry, who had been the organization's COO, took over a few months later. We put a few questions to Lowry by email.
NUVO: Why'd you take on the top job at Heartland? What have you accomplished during your first year — and what's left on the to-do list?
Stuart Lowry: I came to Heartland Film with a background in writing, theatre and not-for-profit management. Heartland offered a pure focus on arts. Starting as COO in 2012 before moving to president this year allowed the perfect path for me to become comfortable with the artistic platform while shaping a management vision best suited for the current budget and personnel. Heartland is one of the most creative, challenging and energizing positions I have had. Even with a 23-year history, we have enormous work ahead to connect films and filmmakers to audiences while building a donor base. Championing an inclusive programming mix through diverse films will be a patient process and a priority. I am thrilled to be part of this process.
NUVO: To my mind, Heartland has changed or evolved over the years in terms of programming, from showing a "cheesy, churchy, take-your-family-to-any-of-them" lineup (as Heartland director of marketing and PR Greg Sorvig put it last year) to representing a diverse range of viewpoints and lifestyles. Is that a fair assessment? And do you hope for Heartland to continue heading in a more adventurous or inclusive direction?
Lowry: Since the 2012 Heartland Film Festival, we have seized upon a few key opportunities. The first is attracting a new and creative staff. As a "young" team, we have respect for the history of Heartland but focus on the future, cultivating relevant programming themes, refreshing our marketing approach, and embracing year-round opportunities. Our films are beginning to reflect an amazing leap in themes, filmmaking techniques, national and international reach, while serving a growing and astute audience base. In harmony with the artistic changes, submissions have almost doubled in the past three years; this year continues that torrid pace. Embracing change but staying true to our mission and process are a key ingredient. I see this as a natural push to be relevant, nurture the next generation of filmmakers, and seize the opportunity to become a leading conduit for film art nationally and internationally.
NUVO: Why has it been important to Heartland to allocate so much of its budget to big cash prizes? And given that the infrastructure costs associated with a film festival would be significant enough without big prizes, is it a challenge to maintain the prizes at their current level, year after year?
Lowry: Our cash prizes are actually over 40 percent lower than they were at a peak period around five years ago. However, even at the current level they serve an important purpose; they attract submissions and sustain independent filmmakers. Funding we provide through our awards often goes to new projects. This is demonstrated by the consistent level of returning filmmakers we host. Another important aspect of the prize dollars is the fact we have an endowment set up to support them. While not currently covering the entire expense, the level we have set and our focus on building this endowment over the next three to five years are in alignment. However, we look at this balance annually and if we need to make adjustments to shift operation costs to other areas, we will. The goal is to expand them both but it is always a challenge.
NUVO: I'd guess that Heartland's Summer Rewind series was its biggest program not held in October in quite some time. Are there plans to do more year-round programming? What's been the importance of having an accessible, public headquarters in Fountain Square that's open on First Fridays?
Lowry: Heartland Film's Summer Rewind is exciting. It sets us up nicely to host a new mini-festival program which showcases and extends the best of the best films we have discovered through our October festival. Since 2011, our screenings outside the festival have grown by over 400 percent. Summer Rewind offers a broader immersion program platform, and already resonates with both independent and studio film partners. Both the idea and the venue partnerships will grow over time, but we love the "hometown" feel of using theaters near our Fountain Square headquarters, including the Heartland Basile Theatre inside our office space. We do foresee this as a catalyst for new partnerships, perhaps moving around to smaller theatres as we cultivate our Fountain Square and new audiences.
NUVO: What kind of influence do you hope for Heartland to have on the film industry and Hollywood? Is the Truly Moving Picture Award more a tool for consumers — or could it have the effect of encouraging studios to make smarter, better, more positive films? And speaking of Hollywood, how has Heartland managed to score some big advance screenings this year, like The Judge and the Weinstein Co. movies?
Lowry: Our influence and reach to major studios is already established, so what I am hoping for is an increase in year-round conversations to find the best films that fit our mission and programming. The Truly Moving Picture Award brand is a long-term, core part of this strategy. Recent success in holding premiere and word-of-mouth screenings is based on a number of factors. We offer an extremely high quality experience, a different audience and media outlet compared to the East and West Coast cities, and use our film selection and jury process to have artistic conversations with the studios. Sometimes they receive the Award, sometimes they do not; but they always know why. This honest and transparent process of how we judge and designate films as Truly Moving Picture Award winners resonates with the studios. Our growing ability to engage and showcase film themes through Q & A sessions, media impact and marketing partnerships is a very compelling set of reasons for talent to come to Heartland programs. John Green, Geoffrey Rush, Vanessa Hudgens, Robert Downey Jr. and David Dobkin are only recent examples. We are fortunate to have a strong lineage of film talent who have taken time to come to Heartland. The ball is in our court to elevate those opportunities and remain a relevant partner.