Middleburg Film Festival is like an itty-bitty Cannes, with a few stars amid the foliage

October 27, 2013

If Robert Redford sees the potential for a film festival, it’s probably wise to take note.

So that’s exactly what Sheila Johnson did a few years ago, when Redford visited the 340-acre Middleburg, Va., spread where she was planning to build the Salamander Resort.

“I brought him up on the property to show him where the resort [would be], because I hadn’t really broken ground yet,” recalled the multimillionaire businesswoman and arts patron who serves on the board of Redford’s Sundance Institute. “And he looked down on the town, and he said, ‘You know, this would be a great place for a film festival.’ ”

This past weekend, with the Salamander Resort now built and in business, the inaugural Middleburg Film Festival finally took place in this tiny, blink-on-Route-50-and-you’ll-miss-it town with no movie theater and a population of 670. The event opened Thursday night with Alexander Payne’s forthcoming, ­Oscar-buzzy “Nebraska” and continued through Sunday with screenings of 20-plus foreign films and documentaries, as well as early peeks at high-profile Hollywood releases such as “August: Osage County,” starring Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts.

Although filmmakers and industry types made appearances — “Nebraska” star Bruce Dern and Lee Daniels, director of “The Butler,” were among those present — the festival was more low-key and homegrown than other high-profile celebrity events. With no multiplex in the near vicinity, screenings were held in four local venues: a Salamander Resort ballroom, a school, a community center and a sporting library and museum, whose spaces were outfitted with the humming digital projectors, screens and straight-back chairs needed to convert them into makeshift movie houses. There were no red carpets; attendees were more likely to be found strolling by the quaint coffee shops and clothing boutiques along the town’s main street. While admission to some special events was a tad pricier than others, most movie tickets cost $15. The result was a festival with the vibe of a hyper-miniature, horse country Park City, Utah; a really itty-bitty Cannes brightened by fall foliage instead of the glistening French Riviera.

“You play to your strengths,” said the festival’s executive director, filmmaker Susan Koch. “And our strength is that this is an intimate and accessible, really warm and hospitable place.”

Washington is no stranger to film festivals. FilmFest DC has been bringing global offerings here for nearly 30 years, AFI Docs ushers in a slate of notable documentaries every June and the DC Shorts Film Festival showcases the best of concise cinema in September. But the area — and at about an hour’s drive away from downtown, Middleburg just qualifies as 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.

Three of the films in Middleburg’s official slate — Chile’s “Gloria,” Turkey’s “The Butterfly’s Dream” and Romania’s “Child’s Pose” — were submitted by their respective countries for Academy Award consideration in the best foreign film category. The notable Hollywood heavies in the mix — including “Nebraska,” “August: Osage County” and the Stephen Frears-directed drama “Philomena,” starring Judi Dench — already have generated varying degrees of ­Oscar-related chatter. The latter two of those films, as well as several other Middleburg entries, were backed by the Weinstein Co., the same studio responsible for the aforementioned “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” a film that Sheila Johnson co-produced and that screened in Middleburg on Sunday afternoon.

Connie White, programming director for the Middleburg Film Festival and artistic director for the annual Provincetown International Film Festival in Massachusetts, acknowledged that industry connections, including hers, Johnson’s and Koch’s, played a major role in getting the festival off the ground.

“To be a first-time festival and to be able to get these films? It’s relationships,” she said.

Organizers said Sunday that about 2,500 tickets were sold for the festival; Johnson estimated that it cost about $500,000 to mount the event, an investment offset in part by corporate sponsors and partnerships. (The Washington Post served as a founding media sponsor of the Middleburg Film Festival.)

Both the size and the makeup of the crowds varied from screening to screening. The Thursday night premiere of “Nebraska” — which ended with a standing ovation for an emotional Dern — was packed solid with an audience of mostly white, more mature moviegoers. But the Saturday night “Mandela” event, equally jammed, featured a more diverse mix of races and ages. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of the venues screening smaller films contained numerous empty seats when it came time for the lights to go down. About 20 people showed up at the Hill School for a Saturday afternoon screening of “Like Father, Like Son,” a Japanese drama also featured earlier this year at the Telluride Film Festival. About 30 remained in their folding chairs at the Middleburg Community Center for the post-screening Q&A with Belcim Bilgin, star of “The Butterfly’s Dream.”

While exposing audiences to these films is the festival’s main mission, tourism — attracting people to Johnson’s Salamander Resort as well as the other inns, shops, restaurants and wineries nearby — is certainly a factor, too.

“All festivals are like that,” said Johnson, clad in a pumpkin-orange sweater coordinated perfectly with her lipstick. “I sit on the board of Sundance, and it has become the economic engine of Park City.”

But Johnson and her team aren’t planning to pump up Middleburg to quite that extent yet. For next year and the immediate future, they plan to keep the festival intimate, tailoring it to attract some of the New York and L.A. crowd while pulling in the cinematically curious from around the region.

That approach seemed to work for Judi Littman and Liz Center of Potomac, Md., who changed their original Saturday plans so they could spend part of the weekend with their spouses, movie marathoning in Middleburg.

“We’ve always wanted to go to Sundance,” Littman said.

“And this is probably the closest we’ll get to Sundance,” added Center.

Chaney is a freelance writer.

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