Arts & Culture

The Most Important Film Festival You've Never Heard Of

Why the road to the Oscars goes through horse country.
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Cannes. Venice. Middleburg?

In the universe of super-sized film festivals—where movie stars flock to one glamorous location or another to promote a project, trot down a red carpet, and stock up at gifting suites—the Middleburg Film Festival, held in mid-October in a leafy corner of Virginia horse country, might not be as large a presence as some others, but increasingly the four-day festival has become one of the most interesting (and influential) on the road winding toward the Academy Awards.


The 2018 Middleburg Film Festival drew nearly 5,000 attendees.

In fact, this year’s festival—the sixth, which wrapped up October 20—featured screenings of awards-season favorites including Steve McQueen’s Widows, Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, and Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum, and events with the likes of Boy Erased director Joel Edgerton, Maggie Gyllenhaal (who received the festival’s 2018 Leading Actress Award), and Grammy-winning, Oscar-nominated songwriter Diane Warren. If that kind of programming reminds you of some of the more established festivals around, well, there’s a reason for that.

“Before I ever put a shovel in the ground here, I was on the board of Sundance and I got to know Robert Redford very well,” says Sheila Johnson, the CEO of Salamander Hotels & Resorts, co-founder of BET, and driving force behind the Middleburg Film Festival. “He came out to Middleburg to visit me and was trying to get advice on the management of Sundance. I drove him up to the property [where Salamander Resort & Spa is now], and he said to me, ‘this is such a beautiful town, why don’t you start a film festival?’”


Maggie Gyllenhaal, who received the 2018 Leading Actress Award, with Sheila Johnson.

That’s just what Johnston did. The first Middleburg Film Festival took place only three months after Johnson’s resort opened and drew nearly 1,800 people from the surrounding area—a tony, rural area where the Kennedy’s once owned a weekend estate and the Foxcroft prep school has been in operation since 1914—and Washington, D.C, which is about an hour away. Its inaugural opening night film was Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, which went on to earn six Oscar nominations.

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In the years since, the festival has grown; this year it brought in nearly 5,000 guests to the four screening rooms—charmingly retrofitted into venues like a hotel ballroom, a school, and a local community center—across town and the events held at Middleburg destinations, including local wineries. The crowd comes in riding boots and carrying very expensive handbags and glasses of that regional wine are toted into screenings; there’s an overall feeling of being someplace far away from bright lights but where good taste is in high supply. And it’s not just movie fans; stars like Emma Stone and Meg Ryan have made the trek, and filmmakers including James Ivory and Dee Rees are often on hand as well.


Viggo Mortensen, Kristopher Bowers, and Peter Farrelly at the 2018 Middleburg Film Festival.

This year, the festival screened At Eternity’s Gate directed by Julian Schnabel, Cannes hit Cold War, directed by Pawel Pawlikowski, Jason Reitman’s Gary Hart biopic The Front Runner, Paul Dano’s Wildlife, the Maria Callas documentary Maria By Callas, Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite, and a surprise screening of Stan & Ollie, the John C. Reilly and Steve Coogan movie about Laurel and Hardy. Which is to say, what they’re showing are top-shelf films that are, more often than not, among the year’s most talked-about—and in some cases, months before they’ll be in theaters.

And while movies aren’t bought out of the festival, Johnson and her programming team, led by Executive Director Susan Koch, take pains to bring movies to the festival that will resonate with locals—both equestrian types and diplomats—and give a town without a local cineplex the chance to engage in some cultural debate.


Greta Gerwig at Middleburg in 2017.

“We’re number six of the most prominent film festivals leading to the Oscars,” Johnson says.” I think it’s about the film’s we’ve curated; Susan and I want to make sure we’re bringing films that are the right fit for this festival, but we also want to color outside the lines a bit. We want to show films that will spark stimulating conversations. Movies are about storytelling, so if you can get people to really watch them, then they’ll talk.”

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The Salamander Resort and Spa in Middleburg, VA.

One especially hot topic of conversation, of course, is which of the films might have gold statuettes in its future. Johnson, a sometimes film producer who has worked on documentaries like The Other City and features like Lee Daniels’ The Butler, says working on the festival gives her the chance to make some early predictions. “I think Melissa McCarthy should get nominated [for Can You Ever Forgive Me?]; she’s the stand-out as far as I’m concerned,” she says. “And I’d support Roma for Best Picture—and The Green Book, too.”


La La Land director Damien Chazelle, far left, and Emma Stone at the Middleburg Film Festival.

And while Johnson says she’s not looking to expand her festival past its current four-day run—“it’s what we can handle,” she says, “and I love that intimacy”—it’s still possible that she’ll have the chance to screen one of her own films at Middleburg down the road. “If I can find the right film, I’d continue working as a producer,” she says with a sly smile. “I just haven’t found the right film yet.” Lucky for her, some of the best of the year were showing in a ballroom just down the hall.

*This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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