Spotlight: Heartland Film Festival

Jeffrey Sparks, president of the Indianapolis-based Heartland Film Festival, has had trouble over the years explaining what it is his fest is about. And every attempt seemed to lead to misunderstandings.

No, it’s not a religious film festival.

No, it’s not a Republican or even a conservative film festival. (Sparks had to get Charles Champlain, a longtime champion of Heartland, to phone Richard Dreyfuss to convince the actor that that wasn’t the case before Mr. Holland agreed to schlep to Indy when his “Opus” was honored.)

And it’s not only a fest exclusively for family films. Sparks is telling his parents to stay away from the R-rated POW drama “To End All Wars,” which is screening this year.

It wasn’t until last year that Sparks stumbled upon the right words to describe what is being celebrated every October (this year Oct. 17-25) in the Indiana capital. He’s embraced “Truly moving pictures,” a line created for an ad campaign but now used to define the fest.

That, for him, effectively covers the Hollywood films that are honored each year, from “Dead Man Walking” to “Babe,” from “Schindler’s List” to “The Princess Diaries.” It also defines the fest’s special events, such as a 10th anniversary celebration of “Hoosiers” and last year’s pre-release screening of the shot-in-Indiana boat-racing pic “Madison,” with stars Jim Caviezel and Jake Lloyd in attendance.

The phrase also applies to the independent features and short films (330 were submitted this year), which share $100,000 in prize money.

The fest culminates in a gala on the floor of Conseco Fieldhouse, the Indiana Pacers’ home court, an event that in scale exceeds that of better-known festivals — although Sparks admits that it’s often difficult to lure stars to the Midwest.

Still, past events have included visits from Gary Sinise, Marcia Gay Harden, Robert Wise and Maureen O’Hara.

If Hollywood is hesitant about coming to the heartland, Heartland is quick to go to Hollywood.

Realizing that its Crystal Heart Award wasn’t doing much good for Hollywood films often already out on video by the time the fest rolled around, Sparks and company started pre-release screenings of films potentially worthy of the “Truly moving pictures” stamp of approval. Those words, with Heartland Film Festival in smaller print, have been embraced by some studio marketers, and now land on about a dozen films a year, marking the poster for “Remember the Titans” and the video case of “Hearts in Atlantis.”

If Sparks has his way, the label — and the festival — will encourage filmmakers to make more films that inspire. But not necessarily in religious, family or conservative ways.

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