An atypical year meant an atypical workplace. Greg Sorvig, BA’06, artistic director for the Indianapolis-based Heartland Film, found himself watching and confirming festival submissions from his basement.
The main room of that basement is subdivided: a playroom for his daughters on one end, a television and some bookshelves on the other. In front of the TV is a padded wooden rocking chair and matching footrest — in more ordinary times, its most regular users are Sorvig’s daughters for morning cartoons. But for the unusual summer of 2020, it became the workstation from which Sorvig watched some of the biggest films of both of Heartland Film’s 2020 festivals: Indy Shorts International Film Festival and Heartland International Film Festival.
One — “If Anything Happens I Love You” — went on to claim an Academy Award for Best Animated Short at the 93rd Oscars. The short, aesthetically sparse and movingly minimalist, portrays a family grappling with the loss of a daughter to gun violence. Sorvig said it was the type of film he knew the festival had to play. The early days of the pandemic, along with the complex tangle of feelings a global shutdown and incessant tragedy had provoked, only made it more resonant to him.
“There was such a thick feeling of loss and despair, both shared and individual,” Sorvig said.
Another, “76 Days,” more directly connected to the pandemic.
“A vérité depiction of the first 76 days of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China, the film was very human in its approach to the confusion, love and loss that swept the hospitals and first responders in the city,” he said.
Amidst the confusion of the pandemic’s first few months affecting the United States – of lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, loss, confusion and toilet paper shortages – Sorvig said it was a vital look at the pandemic with the power to reframe the American perception of the outbreak.
“It’s surreal to think about that first, intimate viewing on my laptop in relation to the film’s reception and success,” he said.
Like “If Anything Happens I Love You,” “76 Days” would play a role in a triumph for Heartland Film. The former added to the festivals’ repertoire of Oscars successes: first as one of 29 festival-screened films to be nominated (alongside shorts “A Love Song for Latasha,” “Do Not Split,” “White Eye,” “The Present” and “Feeling Through”) and again as one of eight to take home a statue. The latter became the first film acquired for distribution out of HIFF.
It was those triumphs and more through which Sorvig realized 2020 didn’t need to be the “Band-Aid year” many feared it would be.
“Blue-sky concepts and big milestones were the last things we expected to achieve, but looking back we did, and it’s very surreal,” he said.
For a number of festivals, the onset of the pandemic spelled imminent doom. Austin’s South by Southwest was the first domino to fall. And then Cleveland International Film Festival. The Festival de Cannes was canceled for the first time since 1939, when World War II prevented the first planned festival until 1946.
But Heartland Film had the advantage of time to prepare, and as other spring and summer festivals canceled or postponed, plans began to fall into place for July’s Indy Shorts festival and October’s HIFF.
“The will was definitely there,” Sorvig said. “We wanted to move on with something.”
Eventive quickly became the industry standard for online film exhibition, and so with a virtual program and screenings at Indianapolis’ Tibbs Drive-In Theatre, the show went on.
For Indy Shorts, Sorvig said, 2020 marked a rare 100% acceptance rate in programmed films. Ordinarily, once the festival’s coordinators assemble a lineup of submissions and acquisitions they’d like to show, not all of the filmmakers accept the invite for a variety of reasons. And the festival still maintained Academy Awards qualification and cash prizes.
“The core benefits were still there, for filmmakers around the world,” Sorvig said. “Filmmakers were excited to share their films with audiences again.”
For feature films, Oscar qualifications require that a film “four-walls” – plays for at least a week in a theater in New York and in Los Angeles. But for short films, Oscar-qualifying film festivals fulfill the requirement. Heartland Film has had Live Action Short qualification since 2012 and Documentary Short since 2018, and picked up Animated Short qualification last year, Sorvig said. Hence its routine success in Oscar shortlisted, nominated and awarded festival films.
“We used to be a blip on the radar,” Sorvig said. “Now we’re an awards season player.”
Sorvig’s first involvement with Heartland Film was as a marketing volunteer, and then as a volunteer screener. Because of the massive quantities of films submitted to the festivals each year, the organization accepts volunteers to give submissions preliminary evaluations, helping the festival’s higher-up programmers “pan for gold.”
“It sounds very romantic,” Sorvig said. “But you see a lot of bad movies.”
Submissions were unpredictable. But eventually he saw some he genuinely loved. A few made the festival, and one, Mohamed Diab’s “Cairo 678,” took home the 2012 festival’s Grand Prize.
Eventually, volunteer work led to a full-time job, as the festival’s director of marketing and public relations. Through that position, Sorvig helped to reshape the festival’s marketing strategies and revitalize its brand, expanding and restructuring programs and awards. Four of the festival’s best-attended years coincided with his four years as marketing director.
In 2016, when the organization’s former artistic director stepped down in advance of the 25th festival, Sorvig donned a second hat, as director of film programming. His responsibilities expanded to include serving as liaison for the festival to book major films from studios and distributors. In 2019, he became the festival’s artistic director, continuing to help secure major films and talent as he oversaw the artistic vision of the entire organization.
In 2019, he booked the U.S. premiere of the Mr. Rogers film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” after its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival. The same year, HIFF featured a range of its biggest titles yet: Pedro Almodóvar’s wistful cinememoir “Pain and Glory,” Bong Joon-ho’s pop thriller sensation “Parasite” and Celine Sciamma’s ravishing romantic drama “Portrait of a Lady on Fire.”
“It’s one thing to say you like film,” Sorvig said. “It’s another thing to express that in a written format, to express that to others through the lens and mission of an organization.”
Concurrently, he also began to work with Tribeca, the New York-based film festival started by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff in the wake of 9/11. In 2018, when the festival needed overflow screeners, he joined its screening team. In 2019 he was invited back, and in 2020 took on an associate programmer role.
Working for two film festivals at once means, of course, amounts of movie-watching nearly inconceivable to the casual viewer. For Tribeca, Sorvig said he watches about 20-30 short films on a weekly basis through the heart of submissions and programming season, October-January. For Indy Shorts, sometimes the number exceeds 100 weekly, hence his reliance on a team of volunteer screeners and other programmers to pan the creek bed so that he can inspect only the most promising nuggets.
“I like to call myself the head prospector, if you will,” he said.
Working for both Tribeca and Heartland Film also means locking in films for the latter that nearly but don’t quite make the cut for the former.
“It’s a tight-knit community where people know that screeners are out there watching your movies,” Sorvig said. “We do appreciate you.”
Sorvig’s love of movies dates back to childhood, but it wasn’t always his clear career path.
By the end of high school, he had lived in seven different states – North Dakota, Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Alabama, Connecticut, Indiana. His dad’s work in visual merchandising and retail moved the family often. And so Sorvig’s memories of growing up are often centered more around movies than where he was.
He remembers renting “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” religiously from a local grocery store in Iowa – “I was a 4-year-old enamored by hearts getting ripped out, mystical rocks and secret passageways,” he said. He remembers trips to the library and multiplex with friends, renting Buster Keaton and Murnau movies and cramming weekends with film after film after film.
“A lot of my memories are of the multiplex,” Sorvig said. “I remember meeting up with friends and having triple feature days. We would sometimes see six movies in a weekend.”
He moved to Indiana during his senior year of high school, and he applied late to IU. Four years and some change later, he was a graduate of IU’s Communications and Culture Department with honors, and a minor in telecommunications.
“What attracted me to the communications and culture degree was that I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do,” he said. “But I still had a communications umbrella and I could still study film.”
Moving around so much had given him strong interpersonal skills, and watching so many films had given him a continued drive to learn more about the art and history of moviemaking. It was a natural fit.
He took classes with James Naremore and Chris Anderson. The former offered a Kubrick class in tandem with personal research for his “On Kubrick” book as his final teaching before becoming an emeritus professor. The latter served as Sorvig’s education on all things Hollywood and the drive behind a deep-dive into 40s-60s film, as well as a mentor and a favorite professor.
Sorvig’s passion for film was such that he considered going to grad school, though that never worked out.
What did was a series of intermediary positions and internships – twice for Disney; once for Pearson Education, which earned him a proofreading credit on “Absolute Beginner’s Guide to iPod and iTunes”; then for Hunt Construction Group, archiving photos and working on design and multimillion-dollar pitch proposals; then for the National Precast Concrete Association, whose website he helped overhaul among other copy editing and design work; and finally back to construction with Shiel Sexton as a marketing manager.
In a sense, Sorvig’s career in film offered him a post-college education of its own — and a more literal return to school. He joined The Media School’s alumni board in 2017 and was on the advisory committee for the new B.F.A. in cinematic arts degree, approved last year. He frequently interacts with filmmakers and film students, and has joined film schools for virtual conversations over the past year.
“Working at a film festival, every year and every cycle feels like going to film school,” he said. “I’m fortunate in that I can maintain that spirit of learning and discovery through film.”