Coming on the heels of Telluride, Venice and Toronto, Middleburg would cast itself as a necessary stop on the “road to the Oscars,” and the studios complied, making it a part of their awards season campaigns. Over the years, Middleburg has played host to an increasing number of high-profile nominees and winners, including “The Imitation Game,” “Spotlight,” “Moonlight,” “La La Land,” “Lady Bird” and “Parasite.”
This year, things will be different. The coronavirus pandemic has rendered the elegantly casual setting of the Salamander largely off limits to filmgoers who have come to cherish the venue’s cozy intimacy. But festival organizers will do their best to re-create the Middleburg experience, by way of outdoor screenings and a virtual program designed to encourage the same kind of kibitzing that happens while waiting in line or chatting around the library fireplace.
The biggest challenge for a festival that has identified so closely with Oscar season is building a program at a time when likely Oscar contenders are thin on the ground. Netflix and most of the big studios are sitting out festivals this year, leery of piracy and not wanting to ask their casts and crews to travel.
“It’s a tough one,” says Middleburg’s executive director, Susan Koch, about programming during an awards drought. She adds that she and programming director Connie White succeeded in attracting the few titles that have emerged as early favorites: Venice and Toronto award-winner “Nomadland,” Chloé Zhao’s modern-day road movie starring Frances McDormand, will be the opening night movie on Oct. 15 (the festival runs through Oct. 18). They’ve also programmed Regina King’s “One Night in Miami” and “Ammonite,” a period love story starring Kate Winslet and Saoirse Ronan.
The bright side of not having a lot of buzzy films, Koch adds, is the chance for her audience to discover some lesser-known gems. She points to the Irish drama “Herself,” about a woman who flees an abusive husband and builds her own house from scratch; the jazz-infused romance “Sylvie’s Love” and the tender Korean American family drama “Minari” as films that have the potential to break out with Middleburg audiences.
“The other thing is, I just love the documentaries this year,” Koch says, mentioning “76 Days,” a riveting account of the coronavirus crisis in Wuhan, China; “MLK/FBI,” about the U.S. government’s harassment of Martin Luther King Jr.; and “Assassins,” about the killing of North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un’s half brother, as particularly timely.
“Is there an equivalent to ‘La La Land’ [this year]? Not really,” Koch says. “But they don’t come along very often. These others, I think, are just as likely to take you into another world.”
Koch says she has been just as careful in programming for tone as for quality: Fall and winter are often when edgier, darker-themed films replace brightly colored summer blockbusters. But at a time when filmgoers have been set on edge by a pandemic, political division, economic recession and existential uncertainty, some cinematic comfort food wouldn’t go amiss.
And sweetness doesn’t necessarily mitigate nourishment. Films like “One Night in Miami,” which chronicles a historic real-life encounter between Sam Cooke, Malcolm X, Cassius Clay and Jim Brown, and the father-son coming-of-age drama “Concrete Cowboy,” starring Idris Elba, may not be confrontational in style. Still, they manage to engage with issues of racism, political pragmatism, personal identity and gentrification. “I suppose you could equate [them] with comfort food,” Koch speculates. “But I do think, fortunately, that kind of movie can also be very illuminating.”
Like most festivals, Middleburg adjusted its pricing this year: Whereas all-inclusive passes previously sold for as much as $3,000, this year the highest-priced package will cost $750, which includes dinner for two delivered to your home (or specified location), a virtual wine tasting and craft cocktail delivery, and a reserved parking spot at the drive-in or reserved seats on the lawn. This year’s “cinephile pass,” which would normally cost $900, will cost $150. (Single tickets will be $12, as in past years.) Although the festival is not-for-profit, Koch says it’s financially self-sustaining, and she doesn’t foresee taking a fatal economic hit in the face of the pandemic.
“I’d say about three-fourths of our sponsors came back — maybe not at the same level, but they came back,” she reports. “Also, our expenses are way down. So I think we’ll be in about the same place we’d be in a typical year.”
Above and beyond the movies, Koch says, her goal was to reproduce the festival experience as faithfully as possible. One of her technical staffers noted that the Salamander’s gently rolling grounds are a perfect setting for outdoor screenings and that the 30 rooms facing the “grand lawn” have balconies that can serve as alfresco opera boxes. (Chairs will also be set up on the grass.) What’s more, the hotel’s lower parking lot can be converted into a pop-up drive-in theater for up to 50 cars spaced 10 feet apart.
A physician will be on hand throughout the festival, and everyone attending outdoor shows will have their temperature taken.
The movies being shown outdoors — “Nomadland,” the Nöel Coward adaptation “Blithe Spirit,” the Richard Jenkins dramedy “The Last Shift” and “Ammonite” — will not be available online, a decision Koch says was “out of our control” due to distributors’ unwillingness to make their films more widely available. (While live audiences watch “Nomadland” and “Blithe Spirit” on opening night, online audiences will be watching “76 Days” and “Sylvie’s Love.”)
Still, she hopes to give remote audiences a festival-like experience in the form of “pod pass discounts” for groups who can watch films together and discuss later over online dinner or drinks, and a virtual filmmakers’ lounge wherein writers, directors and producers will interact with viewers throughout the weekend. Like every year, Middleburg will honor a handful of artists, this time in prerecorded segments. Film composer Kris Bowers will play music from his scores for “Green Book,” “When They See Us” and “Dear White People” on Nat King Cole’s piano at Capitol Records in Los Angeles. Zhao, director George C. Wolfe (“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”), screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and actress Sophia Loren will also be appearing in virtual conversations.
Perhaps most festival-like, Koch decided to limit the time period during which links will be available for viewing. While some festivals have given viewers up to 48 hours to view a movie once they’ve bought a ticket, Koch wants to lend the same sense of occasion to the online experience as the in-person event. So at Middleburg, movies will be “released” at set times throughout the festival, with viewers given a 24-hour window in which to watch them. “We want to re-create the festival experience, where you do have a schedule and you have several movies to choose from,” she explains, noting that often those choices are difficult. “That’s part of it.”
So far, she says, the regulars who have made Middleburg a pre-Halloween ritual have responded with enthusiasm, planning Zoom dinners with their pod-pass friends and embracing the outdoor screening idea, regardless of whether they’ll be able to participate themselves. “Even though we’re more virtual than nonvirtual, we’ve been pretty amazed by the response,” she says. “Even if they weren’t going to be there, they want to feel that connection to the place.”