Sports on the Silver Screen
by Jeffrey L. Sparks
When you hear the term “film festival” your mind’s eye likely travels to exotic places like the French Riviera (Cannes) or the mountains of Park City, Utah (Robert Redford’s Sundance). Would it surprise you that a film festival in Indianapolis, Indiana presents one of the largest cash prizes in the world?
The story behind Indianapolis’ role in the film business is as captivating as the movies we promote. It’s a story of vision and generosity and a little bit of good fortune.
I was privileged to help establish Heartland Truly Moving Pictures 20 years ago based on the idea that positive change in people’s lives is made possible through the transformative power of film. However, there were too few of those types of movies and inadequate recognition of those that did make it onto the silver screen.
We began to cultivate the industry by working with independent films. Yet we understood big change would only be possible with big films. That’s what led me to the desk of Dick Cook, former chairman of Walt Disney Studios. Cook loved our mission and he offered to help with one of two options: he could give us money or movies. In other words, he could provide a seed grant or access to inspiring films that fit our mission.
As a start-up organization, I really needed the money. But with a signature film we could really make a name for ourselves in the filmmaking market. I asked what film he had in mind and he told me about this high school football movie that dealt powerfully with racial reconciliation. It was called Remember the Titans. I was sold.
We associated our brand with the release of this Truly Moving Picture Award-winning movie and we placed our lot with the filmmakers who found ways to celebrate positive social change. Sports has a unique niche in this market. From Knute Rockne: All American to Brian’s Song and The Blind Side, football movies in particular and sports movies in general lead the way in films that give us hope and inspiration. One of Heartland’s board members, Angelo Pizzo, is responsible for two of the greatest modern era contributions to this genre.
The son of a Sicilian immigrant, Pizzo grew up in Bloomington, Indiana before heading west to attend USC Film School. He built his career in Los Angeles where he wrote the script for a film celebrating his Indiana roots aptly named Hoosiers. It’s hard to imagine now, but the original concept was not met with much enthusiasm. The production budget was so modest that the producers were forced to hire locals from rural Indiana to fill most of the Hickory basketball team slots. Gene Hackman predicted the movie was going to be a “career killer.”
Instead, Hoosiers earned two Oscar nominations and is now ranked by both USA Today and ESPN as the #1 sports movie of all-time. Rather than killing careers, the film remarkably added luster to the few stars who actually appeared in the film. The story of Hackman and Dennis Hopper is particularly interesting and a testament to Pizzo’s talent as a screenwriter.
Pizzo’s original design for Shooter was simply to use the character as a device to portray his son’s conflict between being a high school basketball star and dealing with an alcoholic father. But then something remarkable happened. During one of the early scenes where Shooter shows up drunk at his son’s game, the townspeople were supposed to remove him from the gym. But Hackman’s character, Coach Norman Dale, had assumed a powerful presence by this time and he spontaneously left the bench to escort the belligerent Shooter off the game floor.
Pizzo noted the dynamism between the Hopper and Hackman characters and revised his screenplay to take the movie in a new direction. He created a relationship between the two actors that became one of the film’s most poignant elements. The performance also created a signature for Hopper’s career that would earn him a cameo appearance in the Indianapolis presentation to NFL owners bidding to host Super Bowl 2012.
Pizzo moved back to Bloomington and returned to Indiana sports for the other landmark of his career calledRudy. Like Hoosiers before it, Rudy was based on a true story. Using a distinctively Pizzo technique, he treated the setting as an actual performer rather than using it merely as a backdrop. The result was another iconic film that powerfully displayed the sincerity of the Heartland.
These two films represent Heartland and the foundation of our organization: stories matter.
Jeffrey L. Sparks is the President & CEO of Heartland Truly Moving Pictures
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