Hollywood descends on Virginia horse-and-wine country this weekend for the Middleburg Film Festival. Now in its third year, the festival takes place at makeshift venues throughout the Middleburg area, and with 26 films screened in places like the National Sporting Library and the Hill School, it’s a long way from the noise and glitz of Cannes.
That’s just fine for festival founder Sheila Johnson though. “It is by far one of the nicest, stress-free festivals ever,” she says. “It’s just different.”
“We do try to make ourselves distinctive,” executive director Susan Koch adds. “There are over ten thousand film festivals in the world so you have to create a little niche for yourself.”
In Middleburg’s case, that niche involves world-class films presented in a hyperlocal setting. Local businesses pitch in by putting up posters and offering coupons, vouchers, and gift bags for visitors. They also host events and administrative tasks. A talk with Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke will be held at Boxwood Estate Winery. The Mt. Defiance Cidery & Distillery served as the festival’s box office. “It’s the combination of the setting, the caliber of films, the people we bring in, and the intimacy that makes us unique,” Koch says.
The caliber of films has been impressive since the festival’s debut in 2013, when it opened with soon-to-be Oscar darling Nebraska. This year’s opener, Spotlight, brings the same level of buzz plus a local link: Tom McCarthy’s film is about the Boston Globe’s 2002 investigation into the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal. The investigation was led by Martin Baron, the former Globe editor and current Washington Post executive editor, who is played in the film by Liev Schreiber. Baron will attend a discussion after the October 22 screening.
The lineup also includes other award season buzz, as well as foreign films and a few “independent gems” that came in as submissions. Seven of the films have female directors, while others, like Todd Haynes’s much-anticipated Carol, are driven by strong female leads. “There are these appalling statistics that only four percent of the films directed by women in Hollywood make it to the big screen,” Johnson says. “We’re proud that more than 25 percent of the films we’re showcasing in Middleburg are directed by women.”
Though the festival unfolds about an hour outside of DC, people seem less surprised every year about its unexpected location: “Now they know where Middleburg is,” Johnson says.
The Middleburg Film Festival runs from October 22 through 25. Admission for single screenings cost $15.