Film Festival Rising
The annual Middleburg Film Festival provides four days of fantastic films in a stunning setting.
By Joe Yogerst
Sometimes an off-the-cuff remark is all you need to get things started, to plant the seed that blooms into something great. Such was the case with the Middleburg Film Festival, created by Sheila Johnson after a good friend suggested that the property she had acquired in rural Virginia—a 340-acre property that would one day sprout the Salamander Resort & Spa—would make a great location for movie fest.
When that friend happens to be Robert Redford, you tend to listen. Two decades later, the Middleburg Film Festival is on the verge of hosting its sixth year this October. During that time it’s evolved from a newcomer on the festival scene to a rising star in the movie world, garnering excellent press, loyal followers and a growing reputation for great films. Forty-four Oscar nominations came out of the movies that screened at Middleburg in 2016, and Johnson expects another great year of Oscar nominations for films presented at the most recent festival
A Star is Born
Johnson was already familiar with Middleburg from her daughter’s show-jumping exploits when she moved to the area in 1996 and dove even deeper into the equestrian world. But given her diverse background in the arts—movies, music and television in particular—Johnson was also keen to cultivate her creative streak in new and exciting ways. She was already on the board of Redford’s Sundance Institute when she invited the Academy Award-winning actor and director to visit her in Middleburg.
“He came to talk to me about Sundance and about his resort,” Johnson remembers. “I took him up on the property to show him where I was building my resort, and he looked down on the town and said, ‘You really should put a film festival here.’ It stuck in my mind.”
Of course, film festivals aren’t born overnight. It would take more than a decade before Johnson opened the curtain on her own event. One of her first moves was bringing another old friend on board—filmmaker Susan Koch—as the festival’s executive director. The mutual trust and understanding between them was already established; the pair had previously collaborated on a two very well-received documentaries, “Kicking It” in 2008 and “The Other City” in 2010, with Johnson producing and Koch writing and directing.
Two major factors had to be overcome for them to launch the festival: securing venues in which to screen films and trying to get A-list producers, directors and studios to show their latest creations at a brand-new festival in a town with fewer than 800 people.
“The most obvious challenge was the fact that there’s no movie theater in the town of Middleburg,” Koch recalls. “So we had to find existing venues that we could transform into temporary movie theaters. With the help of a terrific tech crew, we created four theater venues outfitted with state-of-the-art projection and sound equipment required by the studios for the high-profile films that we screen. Our largest venue, the Salamander Resort ballroom, seats approximately 350 people. We were thrilled when one Oscar-winning film director told us, ‘This is better than many movie theaters I’ve been in.’ ”
Johnson is delighted to follow her long involvement in the entertainment world—as co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and as an Executive Producer and Producer on such highly acclaimed films as “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and “A Powerful Noise” (2008)— and from the beginning, the festival has presented a stellar line-up of films that is truly astounding.
The inaugural 2013 festival kicked off on opening night with “Nebraska.” The Alexander Payne-directed comedy-drama starring Bruce Dern and Will Forte would go on to garner six Oscar nominations. Among the 24 other films that screened that first year were “August: Osage County” with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, “Philomena” with Judi Dench, as well as the Johnson-executive produced “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” with Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey.
“We place great emphasis in curating the best possible slate of films,” Koch says. “A Hollywood studio executive told me when we first launched, ‘When you only screen 25 films, they all need to be great.’ This set a high bar for us, and it’s one that we consistently strive for and hopefully meet. We look for a mix of Oscar contenders, independent film ‘gems’ that you might not otherwise get a chance to see, foreign language films, and powerful and inspiring documentaries. We also look to present diverse voices in filmmaking. This past year, nearly one-third of our films were directed by women.”
Success also depended on getting viewers into the seats. It certainly helps having such great lineups and stars like Bruce Dern, Meg Ryan, Lee Daniels, and Emma Stone on hand. Middleburg is also conveniently located — the town, set in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, is just 30 minutes from Dulles International Airport and one hour from our Nation’s Capital.
The Washington Post was there the opening night, raving about the festival’s cozy atmosphere and lack of pretension. Noting that there were no red carpets and many of the tickets were just $15, the Post called it “a really itty-bitty Cannes brightened by fall foliage instead of the glistening French Riviera. … The Washington area—has never hosted a festival that features so many potential Oscar contenders at the same time that the awards season conversation aggressively hits the gas.”
Better Doesn’t Mean Bigger
Since that first year, Johnson, Koch and Programming Director Connie White have set out to make Middleburg better and better, although not necessarily bigger. “My original aim was to keep it intimate,” Johnson says. “And what I mean by intimate is keeping it small, keeping it right in the town of Middleburg so people can literally walk from movie to movie.”
Like most film festivals, selecting the films that screen each year involves a little “behind the screen” magic, a process that includes attending other film festivals, working with an advisory board based in Los Angeles that keeps an eye on upcoming movies, and touching base with their many contacts in the film industry.
“As our reputation continues to grow within the film industry, we’re able to present more and more high profile films, including many Oscar contenders,” Johnson says.
Middleburg’s proximity to the nation’s capital has proved invaluable in attracting well-known press and politicos to speak at the event. Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder participated in a conversation following the screening of “Loving” in 2016. New York Times film critic Janet Maslin spoke with CNN Senior Political Analyst David Gergen about how American presidents are portrayed on the big screen. Panels and talks are moderated by The Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday, Public Radio’s John Horn, and Vanity Fair Special Correspondent Maureen Orth.
Despite her long-time association with Sundance and her frequent visits to other film festivals, Johnson feels that Middleburg has blazed its own trail rather than following the templates or examples set by other events.
“I want everybody to feel like they can get in a film, they can relax, they can get something to eat, and they can come to our different venues, where they can drink wine and listen to intelligent conversation at our panels and really just enjoy the entire experience,” Johnson says.
Another thing that sets Middleburg apart is how music is woven into the fabric of the festival. Each year the lineup features a tribute to a film composer that includes an interview session with that composer or a concert of his or her music played by the Shenandoah Conservatory Symphony Orchestra. Among the composers they have featured are Nicholas Britell (“Battle of the Sexes,” “Moonlight,” “The Big Short,” “12 Years a Slave”), Henry Jackman (“Captain Phillips” as well as the Captain America, Captain Phillips and Wreck-it Ralph) and Carter Burwell (“Carol,” “Rob Roy,” “Twilight” and “Gods and Monsters”).
It Takes a Village
Beyond the movies and music, the most endearing thing about the Middleburg Film Festival is probably its location—the chic Salamander Resort & Spa and rustic Loudoun County, Virginia.
“After five years, it’s hard to find any downside to our location,” Koch says. “The town of Middleburg is charming and historic. It’s located in the heart of wine country, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The festival takes place in October at the height of fall foliage. There’s no traffic, parking hassles or long lines. Salamander Resort serves as a wonderful festival hub for film screenings and great parties—and also a place where filmmakers and filmgoers can engage in conversation in an intimate and relaxed environment.”
Many festival participants and guests stay at Salamander. The resort’s ballroom transforms into the main movie theater and symphony orchestra concert venue. Add if you want: Cozy conversations are held in the library by the fireplace.
Shuttles whisk guests into town for screenings at The Hill School, Middleburg Community Center and the National Sporting Library & Museum, as well as panel discussions, filmmaker conversations and tastings at local wineries. All of the venues in town are within walking distance to one another.
In addition to the movie venues and wineries, the town features wine tastings at the local vineyards, a cidery and distillery, fashion boutiques and other shops, equestrian outfitters, coffee shops, and numerous restaurants.
“Besides presenting films, we want people to explore all that Middleburg has to offer with its rich history, scenic beauty, warm hospitality, and glorious fall foliage.”
Concentrating so much of her time and energy on the resort, the film festival and her various charitable undertakings, Johnson has put her film producing and financing activities on the back burner. “If the right project some along, absolutely,” she answers when asked about a return to active filmmaking.
“The Butler’ was really a right project for me,” she says. “I’ve known about this gentleman and thought that his story needed to be told.”
Now in its sixth year, Johnson and her team look forward to building on their strong track record of bringing top quality films to Middleburg as well as attracting leading filmmakers and filmgoers from all over the world.
“From the beginning,” Koch says, “our tag line has been ‘Four days of fantastic films in a stunning setting,’ and we want to continue to play to our strengths by presenting the ‘best in film’ while retaining the relaxed and intimate environment that sets us apart from other festivals.”
Koch says Middleburg will continue to showcase diverse filmmakers and celebrate the “unsung heroes” of filmmaking like composers and cinematographers. As the festival moves forward, they would like to present film-related events throughout the year and also increase the festival’s educational outreach and mentoring of future filmmakers. “Last but not least, we hope to increase the growing recognition of MFF as a ‘must-stop’ for films on the road to the Oscars—and a place where attendees can experience the very best in film, expand their understanding of the world through cinema, engage in fascinating conversation, and enjoy the warm hospitality and natural beauty of Middleburg.”
The Films of Sheila Johnson
Salamander Hotels & Resorts and Middleburg Film Festival founder Sheila Johnson has executive produced a number of films including:
“Lee Daniels’ The Butler” (2013): This award-winning drama is about a butler who served various presidents during 34 years in the White House. Lee Daniels directed the film, based on real-life presidential butler Eugene Allen.
“Ella es el Matador” (2009): “She is the Matador” follows the lives of two European women who have chosen bullfighting as their profession and the struggles they face both in and out of the “plaza de toros.”
“A Powerful Noise” (2008): Filmmaker Tom Capello illuminates the struggles of three women living in Vietnam, Bosnia and Mali as they face poverty, prejudice, oppression and ethnic strife.
“Kicking It” (2008): Directed by Susan Koch and featuring actor Colin Farrell who narrated this moving documentary about six down-and-out people who played in the Homeless World Cup of soccer.
“The Other City” (2010): Susan Koch directed this documentary about the side of the nation’s capital that few tourists ever get to see—the 3 percent of the population that is HIV positive.