How a Film Goes From Indianapolis to the Oscars

Follow the yellow brick road of film with Julia Ricci of Heartland Film and learn how some shorts make it to the Academy Awards.
A photo of headphones and a clapboard

Indianapolis is home to Heartland Film, the organization that hosts two film festivals each year: the Academy Award®-Qualifying Indy Shorts International Film Festival (July 19-24, 2022) and the Heartland International Film Festival (HIFF) (October 6-16, 2022). This week, I was lucky enough to share some time with Julia Ricci, Senior Programmer for Heartland Film, the team putting Indianapolis on the map.

A photo of Julia Ricci by the Indy Sign
Julia Ricci at Living Room Theatre

If you are new to the film scene, or learning what all the #IndyArtScene has to offer, I’ll let you in on a super cool fact: Indy Shorts plays an official part of the road to the Oscars. The Academy Award®-Qualifying Indy Shorts International Film Festival presented by Heartland Film is the largest shorts festival in the Midwest, and it has been running in Indianapolis since 2018. Originally an expansion to the Heartland International Film Festival, Indy Shorts has become its own six-day summer festival that celebrates the unique, creative, and captivating art of short films.

The 94th Academy Awards® nominations were just announced, and it included three short films from Indy Shorts and six feature films from the Heartland Film Festival that received a total of 33 nominations. The Heartland International Film Festival showcases films that often go on to be nominated for and win Oscars, but the films at HIFF don’t officially qualify for Oscar nominations through it like they do at Indy Shorts, as it’s a different process for feature films qualifying for Oscars. To learn more about the nomination process and both of these film festivals in general, I turned to Julia for the “reel” facts.

How does a short film get nominated for the Oscars?

It’s a complicated and involved process, but in a nutshell, Short Films can qualify for the Oscars in one of three possible ways. The first is screening the film in a public movie theater for seven days in a row in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco, or Miami. The second is by winning a Gold, Silver, or Bronze Medal in the Student Academy Awards. And the final way a short film can qualify is by winning a qualifying award at an Academy Award®-Qualifying film festival.

Heartland Film’s Indy Shorts is one of 140+ Academy qualifying film festivals worldwide, and we are only one of 34 who give qualifying awards for all three short film categories at the Oscars. Once a short film receives a qualification, they have to submit paperwork to the Academy confirming their qualification. From there, there are a few rounds of voting by Academy members to determine the shortlists, then ultimately the nominees.

What does the selection process look like for the Academy Award®-Qualifying Indy Shorts International Film Festival and the Heartland International Film Festival?

We have an open call for entries on the website, “FilmFreeway,” and about 90% of the films we select to play in the festivals come from those submissions. The rest of the films are curated from what our film programming team sees at other film festivals or receives from film distributors.

Films submitted to Indy Shorts and HIFF are judged on their overall artistic and technical quality. Each submitted film goes through an involved judging process where a team of trained volunteers who understand film help us watch every submission that comes in (approximately 4,000+ films total between both festivals). Selected films could eventually be seen more than six times by members of the screening committees, programming staff, and our festival juries as they move through the process.  

How does the exposure at the festival help them on the way to the Oscars?
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Indy Shorts festival

Indy Shorts is one of only 34 festivals in the world to have earned the special designation of being a qualifying festival for the annual Academy Awards® for all three Short Film categories: Live Action, Documentary, and Animation. This means the winner of the Indy Shorts Grand Prize for Best Narrative Short, Grand Prize for Best Documentary Short, and Grand Prize for Best Animated Short will qualify for consideration in the Short Films categories of the Annual Academy Awards® without the standard theatrical run, provided the film otherwise complies with the Academy rules.  We’re honored to have Indy Shorts be part of a filmmaker’s journey to the Oscars.

So the Oscars are a star-studded event, who is the audience at Indy Shorts and HIFF?

Our audience is a mix of film fans of all ages, filmmakers, and film industry members, both locally and internationally. We started offering a virtual option in 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has made the festival more accessible to a wider audience.

How did you get involved with Heartland Film?
A photo of a large movie theatre
Heartland International Film Festival

I grew up loving movies and knew I would end up working in the film industry in some capacity. When I was a student at Ball State, I was part of student media that attended the festival to cover red carpet premieres, interview filmmakers and stars, and write film reviews. After graduation, I started a film blog centered around Classic Hollywood and built up my social media presence in that area, which led to a freelance research gig with Turner Classic Movies. Flash forward to Fall 2017 when I was invited to be on the Documentary Shorts jury for HIFF (before Indy Shorts was established). In early 2018, a Film Programming Coordinator job at Heartland opened up, I applied, got the job, and in 2019 was promoted to Senior Programmer.

Having grown up with films, what is a film story you would love to see come to life?

I’m a fan of Classic Hollywood cinema, and I’m tired of seeing films about that era revolving around the same figures over and over again. There are a lot of fascinating stories that should be told, like that of jazz pianist and singer Hazel Scott. She was a child prodigy, auditioning for Juilliard at age 8 and the first African-American woman to host her own TV show. She also stood up to the House Un-American Activities Committee and the racist structures within the Hollywood studio system. If you’re not familiar with her work, there are a lot of incredible clips of her on YouTube. Search “Hazel Scott two pianos” to start.

Are there any teasers you can give us for the film festival 2022 season?

2022 will mark the 5th annual Indy Shorts and the 31st annual HIFF. I can’t reveal too much just yet, but expect to see a similar format to our 2021 editions with a mix of indoor, outdoor, and virtual screenings at some of the most exciting venues around Indianapolis. Each year our festivals have different themes that are announced the month prior to each fest, so stay tuned!

During the day, Arianna Cruz can be found creating community connections + dreaming up marketing strategies. She moonlights as a magazine founder + owner Making Opportunities Reachable for Everyone. Chat intentionality with her by connecting on LinkedIn.

Throughout March 4-5th, Heartland Film will have their 10th Annual Best of Fest at The Historic Artcraft Theatre in Franklin, Indiana. While showcasing four fan-favorite films from the 2021 Heartland International Film Festival, this would be an excellent opportunity for people to get a taste of the incredible films showcased every year at HIFF. Also, The Historic Artcraft Theatre is beautiful, and they’re celebrating their 100th year right now. Learn more and find tickets here.

Curious about the Indy Shorts and HIFF films that were Oscar-nominated? Find them here.

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