Heartland International Film Festival 2020 Pre-Fest Coverage

As film festivals continue to adapt to the current situation, many of their staff have become creative in their approaches to offering virtual or hybrid festival experiences. In the case of Heartland International Film Festival (HIFF), celebrating its 29th anniversary this October, a variety of viewing options and venues have contributed to additional excitement regarding this year’s festival. From virtual viewings to drive-in movie screenings, the 2020 HIFF is sure to delight movie-goers in the Midwest and beyond.

Today, HIFF is Indiana’s largest and longest-running film festival. Complete with screenings, Q&As, panels, and a variety of on-demand recordings, there is something for everyone to enjoy in this festival format, running from October 8th to the 18th. In terms of content, HIFF also highlights a broad range of genres, celebrating new filmmaking endeavors as well as spotlighting some classics.

I was delighted to interview HIFF Senior Film Programmer Julia Ricci about exciting developments in the 2020 HIFF format ready to be enjoyed by new and veteran HIFF attendees. It is my pleasure to publish the interview here.

Annette: What is your role in the Heartland International Film Festival?

Julia: As Senior Film Programmer, I work with our Artistic Director to plan and curate our film festival lineups (we also host Indy Shorts International Film Festival each July). I also attend other film festivals in the US and internationally to look for films for our festival, staying familiar with awards contenders, new filmmakers, and emerging movements. I also manage the film submissions process and our volunteer pre-screening committees.

Annette: What makes the Heartland International Film Festival particularly unique?

Julia: We’re a filmmaker- and audience-focused festival that brings the two groups together for 11 days of the best of independent film from around the world. We’ve built a reputation on our impactful movies, the connections audiences make with visiting filmmakers, the overall hospitality and intimacy of the experience, and bringing big Hollywood names to the Hoosier state.

Heartland Film has bestowed more than $3.5 million to independent filmmakers since our first festival in 1992 – the largest total amount awarded by any film festival in North America.

Annette: How is this festival going to be different from previous iterations of the festival?

Julia: Pre-pandemic, our festival screened films in three to four different indoor venues around Indianapolis. There would also be parties and receptions and we would host 100 or so filmmakers and industry guests who traveled in from around the world.

At the start of the year, we weren’t sure how we’d be able to host a film festival safely. This summer, we pivoted and hosted our Academy Award®-qualifying Indy Shorts International Film Festival virtually and at the Tibbs Drive-In Theatre, and it was a great success, so we’ve taken that model and applied it to HIFF. It has taken creativity, commitment and community partners to keep the festival going, and we were blown away by how the community has rallied around to support the arts in this challenging time.

This year’s 11-day festival virtual/drive-in hybrid festival October 8-18 includes 75 independent feature films, 22 World and U.S. Premieres, 29 drive-in screenings, live virtual filmmaker Q&A’s, special events, and even a “Drive-Thru Red-Carpet”! Another huge difference is that you don’t have to live in or travel to Indy to experience the festival, since 60 of the films are available to watch virtually on your computer or by connecting your TV. With the exception of our Virtual Centerpiece and Virtual Closing Night films, all of the virtual films can be “rented” at any time between October 8-18.

Annette: One of the film-viewing venues happens to be a drive-in—a viewing form that seems to have gained more interest as of late, particularly due to the limitations COVID-19 has placed. How does this modern drive-in experience compare to drive-ins of the past?

Julia: This year has actually been my very first drive-in experience! The biggest difference I’ve heard people mention is there aren’t speakers on the poles where you park. Today, a lot of drive-ins have a radio station you tune in to with your car radio or portable radio/boom box.

It’s amazing how it took a pandemic to bring drive-ins back, and I think a lot of it has to do with the nearly contact-free experience and the need to get out of the house without much effort. You can get comfy in your car or bring chairs and blankets and your own snacks. I’ve seen people get really creative with their set-ups with air mattresses, TV trays, you name it. It turns an ordinary movie-going experience into an event.

Annette: Are there particular themes or panels that this festival will include?

Julia: Our overall festival theme is “The Full Spectrum of Film,” to celebrate the wide variety of film genres, stories and perspectives from around the world showcased through the 75 films we have in the festival. There’s something for everyone: we have Comedy, Drama, Romance, Biopics, documentaries on a wide range of topics from social justice to pop culture, and more! We also have an Indiana Spotlight competition highlighting films from Hoosier filmmakers and made here in our state, and an all-new Horror section.

Each day we also have free, live virtual Q&As with the filmmakers from all the films, plus panel discussions about filmmaking in Indiana and a masterclass with the Bloomington, Indiana, based production company Pigasus Pictures. If you watch them live, you can ask the filmmakers your questions in the chat window, and if you can’t join live, the Q&As and panels will be available on-demand until October 25.

Annette: What are you most excited about regarding this year’s festival?

Julia: First and foremost, I’m most excited that we’re able to have a festival this year with the fun new elements of virtual and drive in. I’m especially excited about October 14–we’re doing a Hitchcock/Jimmy Stewart double-feature of REAR WINDOW and VERTIGO. My goal is to program a Jimmy Stewart film or two at our festival each year to showcase his work and bring attention to the award we offer in his name.

Since 2015 in partnership with the Stewart family, we’ve presented the annual Jimmy Stewart Legacy Award and a $5000 cash prize to a film in our festival that best embodies the ongoing legacy of Jimmy Stewart and demonstrates the triumph of the human spirit through determination and the defiance of odds, humble vulnerability, and courage in the face of adversity. Last year’s winner was the documentary FIRE ON THE HILL, about the Black cowboys in South Central LA, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Apple TV+. We’re honored to be the only film festival in the world to present an award in Stewart’s name sanctioned by his family.

Annette: This festival seems to be operating in a hybrid format—a combination of in-person and virtual events. How do these events capture the spirit of previous iterations of the Heartland Film Festival?

Julia: Our mission is to inspire filmmakers and audiences through the transformative power of film, and even though the festival format is a little bit different, the impactful films that we pride ourselves on showing are still at the heart of the festival. It’s also important to us to connect filmmakers and audiences, so it was important to us to preserve the live element of the post-film Q&As in the virtual festival, as opposed to everything being pre-recorded. We’re also hosting a few virtual audience happy hours on Zoom, since one of the most fun things about film festivals is the “lobby talk” before and after the films. And we’re still hosting our Award Ceremony virtually as well, which we pre-taped at The Cabaret in downtown Indy and will livestream on October 17.

Annette: Do you have any advice for new festival attendees?

Julia: The amount of options of things to see and do can be overwhelming to first time attendees, but you can make it your own custom experience! First and foremost, accept that you will not be able to see every single film and Q&A, unless you have the secret to time travel (in which case, tell me!). Explore the festival website and make a plan, and prioritize the films you absolutely must see. We have a feature on the Film Guide where you can sort films by genres and categories and if they’re virtual or drive-in to help you plan your schedule. Take in a virtual Q&A or two to hear the behind-the-scenes stories of how your favorite films were made. We’re also posting festival tips and film recommendations on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram (@heartlandfilm) and in our daily email newsletter. Also, check out the FAQ pages and the Help center; we have live chat support if you’re having trouble streaming or hooking up your TV to your computer.

Annette: Why is it important to support and attend film festivals?

Julia: It’s important to support and attend film festivals, especially regional film festivals that showcase independent films because you’re supporting artists who tell amazing stories that the mainstream isn’t usually providing, and, often, you are seeing films you won’t see anywhere else.

You’re also supporting a curated experience in the midst of the endless scrolling overload of what the major streaming services provide. By attending film festivals, you’re also contributing to the host city’s local economy because it’s a community effort to host events of this scale.

The 2020 Heartland International Film Festival runs from October 8th-18th.

About Annette Bochenek

Dr. Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is an avid scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for TCM Backlot, she also writes for Classic Movie Hub, Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
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