Hollywood in the heartland

The Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis reveals the rising cinematic clout of middle America.

When the movie stars come out at night in this open-faced city of broad, clean streets, they stand in sharp relief. The vibe here is more Steak 'n Shake than Viper Room. A Porsche can turn heads. Wunderkind actress Dakota Fanning - recently of "War of the Worlds" fame - can set off polite pandemonium as she makes her way into a screening of her latest film, "Dreamer."

So what's the diminutive diva doing so far from the coast? She's one of a growing contingent of Hollywood heavyweights - actors, producers, writers, directors - paying respect to a relatively new but increasingly powerful player on the cinematic scene: Indianapolis's Heartland Film Festival.

Wrapping up Friday, the weeklong event is in its 14th year. But it really began to make its presence felt just last year, when "Because of Winn-Dixie," a festival centerpiece, became a box-office smash.

Heartland screens films downtown and at two outlying malls, and stages a black-tie gala to rival the Oscars. It bestows the Crystal Heart Award to top winners, mostly independent films, and gives its seal of approval to many others - dubbing them Truly Moving Pictures.

Not surprisingly, it fast-forwards past blockbusters, singling out a different brand of mass appeal: "filmmakers whose work explores the human journey by artistically expressing hope and respect for the positive values of life."

Heartland's rising profile hints that Tinseltown might be outgrowing its tin ear for middle America, a culture that's both savvier and more proactive than the "Peoria" of old - and a bloc whose consumer clout keeps growing. Some 580 films were submitted to Heartland this year, up from 330 in 2004.

Not all hit the mark - Heartland does not imply ideology, and it does not mean insipid. "It's not about 'sappy,' " says Jeff Sparks, the festival's president. Mr. Sparks, who previously ran the New Harmony Project, a nationally known workshop for playwrights with similarly lofty aims, cites his own preferences. "I want to see [gritty movies like] 'Cinderella Man,' " he says. "Heartland is trying to say to the industry: 'Give us truly moving pictures.' " These are the films, he says, that linger. They can carry R ratings and cover nearly any ground, as long as they get at the core of the human experience.

"Innocent Voices," a new Crystal Heart winner, depicts a Salvadoran boy's decision to join a guerrilla army or face execution. Another winner, "A Mind of Her Own," follows a woman's fight to become a physician despite her struggle with dyslexia. At a theater north of the city, viewers emerge raving about its intensity.

Moviegoers, too, can reward risk-takers. Consider the recent box-office success of "The Gospel," not a Heartland-cited film, but one that did not escape industry notice. "Nobody [in Hollywood] paid too much attention to it, but they did as of Monday morning, when it showed up with an $8 million weekend," says Mike Tollin, producer of "Dreamer," speaking by phone from Los Angeles. "That speaks loudly in this town. Now all of sudden people are talking about how it's possible to bring the secular and spiritual together ... [to] have faith-based messages alongside pure entertainment."

Heartland as springboard

Mr. Tollin used Heartland as a springboard to his own mainstream success. The $5,000 stipend that came with his Crystal Heart for 1993's "Hardwood Dreams" helped him sharpen the basketball documentary, he says, which then won a place at Sundance. Its success there brought him together with Denzel Washington and led to the 1995 Tollin film "Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream," which received an Oscar nomination.

Increasingly, Heartland is showing a knack for spotting pictures with promise. Last year, besides "Winn-Dixie," it saw two Crystal Heart winners - the animation short "Birthday Boy" and the dramatic feature "Les Choristes" - nominated for Academy Awards.

"Dreamer," the story of a rehabilitated racehorse, could soar, largely on the drawing power of its Georgia-born star. Perched on a couch in the Canterbury Hotel for a prescreening interview, Dakota, 11, is all tiny-toothed smile and direct eye contact, dressed in a sparkly sweater as if for the first day of school. She laughs at the label - "most powerful actress in Hollywood" - given her by Entertainment Weekly. "It's kind of embarrassing," she says, before quickly adding, "but so nice."

If some early critics have jumped on what they view as her film's plot predictability, they might be missing the point. The movie's defining moment is one in which a father and his own dad - Kurt Russell and Kris Kristofferson - look at each other during the final race and understand that the outcome doesn't matter. Relationships do.

One key for filmmakers, says festival president Sparks: Stay true to your intent. "If you want to make a kids' movie, make a kids' movie," he says, decrying the practice of adding innuendo to keep parents amused.

"That drives me nuts when they do that," says Patricia Heaton, the Emmy-winning actress best known for her role on the TV hit "Everybody Loves Raymond." "It's very lazy, and it's not creative thinking." Ms. Heaton is here to be honored for a documentary, "The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania," which she produced and her husband, David Hunt, directed.

No patronizing middle America

That project exposed the couple to what Heartland festival backers see as another flaw in today's filmmaking: a patronizing of middle America. Mr. Hunt says he was tempted to be ironic in his approach when he first began exploring the quirky world of the coal-mining community of Carmichaels, Pa.

"It just sounded so odd, I thought, 'Oh, well, this is a Christopher Guest [spoof] movie,' " he says. "But I was so taken with the strength of the community and the character of the local people.... There was no pretentiousness about them. And, coming from Hollywood, that was such a relief.

"I think what Hollywood has done for so long," says Hunt, "is make movies for themselves."

At the IMAX theater on Washington Street, families are well represented in a line that snakes past searchlights and limos. Several say they feel "Dreamer" - filmed just to the south, in Kentucky - was made for them. The buzz, though, is all about Dakota, who was gamely working the crowd. "She's a tiny bit taller than you, but not much," says a mother to her blond daughter, who clutches a ticket that the child actress has just signed.

" 'Dreamer' will be the fifth film we've done that has been a [Heartland] award-winner," Tollin says. "I've watched the [festival's] growth along the way and admired how the vision has never been sacrificed."

In fact, it has been expanded. Sparks plans to broaden the site (www.trulymovingpictures.org) to which people can go to sign up for e-mail blasts noting worthy films. Heartland is building its relationship with the National Collaboration for Youth, an association of groups including the YMCA and Big Brother, Big Sister. The Girl Scouts ran programs around 2002's "Bend It Like Beckham," a movie about girls' soccer. "Winn-Dixie" became the focus of a literacy program advanced by Scholastic.

Discerning moviegoers can drive the art, says Sparks. And heartlanders have the numbers. "A lot of people complain about the industry," he says. "What can you do to have an impact? Go on opening weekend, and vote with your dollar."

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