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Middleburg Film Festival turns 10 with largest program ever

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Middleburg Film Festival Executive Director Susan Koch remembers a moment in 2014 when she knew the festival had fulfilled its mission. The awards-season favorite “The Imitation Game” had been playing to packed crowds when Koch walked through the cozy-elegant lobby of the Salamander Resort and Spa, the festival’s hub in Virginia’s Loudoun County.

She spied Graham Moore, “The Imitation Game’s” screenwriter, sitting “by the fireplace, just working on his next script,” she recalls. “Anybody could come up and talk to him.”

Intimacy, accessibility and buzz have always been paramount at Middleburg, which celebrates its 10th annual edition beginning Thursday with 40 films, its largest program ever. Launched in 2013 by Sheila C. Johnson — who, in addition to owning the Salamander, has served on the board of the Sundance Institute and has produced several films, including “The Butler” and “Summer of Soul (… Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” — Middleburg is one of the few regional film festivals that seems to have punched above its weight from the very beginning.

Middleburg’s opening-night film in 2013 was “Nebraska,” with the film’s star, Bruce Dern, in attendance — a “get” that was in place even before Programming Director Connie White came on board. White, a respected figure in the world of festival programming and independent exhibition, was impressed. “Often opening night and [securing] a high-profile guest is one of the first things asked of me,” she observes. Having that prime slot already set, she says, “I could use that when I was approaching other distributors who had never heard of Middleburg.”

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In a full-circle moment, “Nebraska’s” producers, Middleburg advisory board members Ron Yerxa and Albert Berger, will bring their latest project to this year’s festival: “Somewhere in Queens,” directed by Ray Romano, who will also attend the screening. Other filmmakers scheduled to appear include Gina Prince-Bythewood (“The Woman King”), Rian Johnson (“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery”) and Florian Zeller (“The Son”), as well as actors Micheal Ward (“Empire of Light”), Dolly De Leon (“Triangle of Sadness”), Anna Diop (“Nanny”) and Brendan Fraser (“The Whale”).

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From the beginning, organizers saw a niche for Middleburg — a picturesque town in the middle of Virginia’s horse country, anchored by Johnson’s sprawling, stylishly appointed hotel — as a destination festival on a par with Telluride, but even more approachable. There, film lovers could see the season’s most highly anticipated films and mingle with their makers amid wine tastings, relaxed dinners or casual encounters on the Salamander’s 340-acre campus. The festival’s motto was “four days of fantastic films in a stunning setting,” Koch recalls. (And an expensive one: Rooms at the Salamander run about $500 per night; screening and event packages range from $1,200 to $3,000. More affordable ticket options include the $125 day pass and $18 individual admissions.)

Another catchphrase: “The road to the Oscars goes through Middleburg,” which turned out to be true. Over the years, festivalgoers have been able to see such eventual best-picture winners as “Spotlight,” “Moonlight” and “Green Book,” often with the creative principals in attendance, as well as such nominees as “La La Land,” “Call Me by Your Name” and “The Power of the Dog.” Celebrities have sprinkled their share of pixie dust: In 2016, Emma Stone showed up with “La La Land’s” director, Damien Chazelle; last year, Dakota Johnson came to talk about “The Lost Daughter” (with boyfriend Chris Martin in tow), Kenneth Branagh came with his semi-autobiographical drama “Belfast”; and actress Ann Dowd came with the searing chamber piece “Mass.”

Dowd “had no idea what to expect” from Middleburg, she wrote in a recent email. What she found, she said, was “a beautiful experience.”

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“The events planned — the screening, the q-and-a, the luncheons, the gatherings — were chosen with obvious care and consideration,” Dowd continued. “The event was full of warm, intelligent, kind people who shared a love and respect for film. I remain deeply grateful for being included.”

Branagh, Koch says, was just as effusive. “When you do a film like he did that is so personal, you want that relationship with your audience.”

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Of course, it didn’t hurt that, before he presented “Belfast,” Branagh had been treated to a lavish dinner in his honor in the Salamander’s stallion barn, converted for the evening into a glittering party space. The care and feeding of talent was of special importance to Koch who, as a documentary filmmaker, has been to her share of festivals. “We take great care in how we position their films, we give a lot of thought to who’s going to do the conversations, we try to get as big an audience as we can,” Koch says. “We just want them to have as positive an experience as they possibly can, whether it’s by having a dinner or some kind of a chat, or just little things we can do to enhance the experience and separate us out from the pack a little bit.”

The result is that Middleburg has earned deep loyalty among the filmmakers who have appeared there. This year, Noah Baumbach — who brought “Marriage Story” in 2019 — will be on hand with the opening-night film “White Noise,” his adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel. Every year, the festival honors a film composer; this year, Michael Abels, who wrote the scores for “Get Out,” “Us” and “Nope,” will be recognized and five former honorees — Mark Isham, Marco Beltrami, Charles Fox, Kris Bowers and Diane Warren — will come back for a reunion concert (2019 honoree Terence Blanchard will appear Sunday with his band).

And the festival has earned “an incredible amount of trust and respect” among studios and distributors, says Jason Cassidy, vice chairman at Focus Features. In addition to “Belfast,” Focus has brought “Harriet,” “Darkest Hour” and “Loving” to Middleburg in years past; this year the studio will bring “Tár,” starring Cate Blanchett, and James Gray’s semi-autobiographical period piece “Armageddon Time.” Focus, Cassidy adds, “looks forward to continuing to collaborate [with Middleburg] for many years to come.”

Middleburg has felt so sure of its mission, and so assured in its execution of it, that improving on it is a double-edged sword. Although the town doesn’t have a proper movie theater, audiences have grown accustomed to seeing films in the Salamander’s ballroom, as well as a nearby school, sports library and community center. Attendance has remained steady, organizers say, with pre-pandemic levels hovering around 5,000. Although, like most festivals, Middleburg went hybrid in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic, unlike some other festivals, the virtual component went away last year. “We didn’t want that to become an option,” White says, “because we think the in-person experience for the audience and filmmakers is so important.”

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White recalls the early days of having to explain to recalcitrant studios and distributors where the town was (“30 miles from Dulles, closer than D.C.”); now, she says, they’re calling her asking for precious slots. The past decade started with her promising that they would be happy to get on board early. “Now, it’s like, ‘We want presence at your festival, we want to be in your lineup,’ ” she says. Koch adds: “We’ve gotten quite a few offers to expand to nearby towns, and we’ve really resisted. I don’t know that growth means numbers.”

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Johnson says the 10th edition is “a good time to start thinking about the next five or 10 years and how we might want to grow, whether it’s adding a day to the festival, increasing the number of venues or hosting more advance screenings and premieres throughout the year.” Although she has spoken in the past of building a theater on the Salamander grounds, she adds, “These are all questions for our board to consider. Nothing is off the table.”

For the time being, Johnson and her team agree, Middleburg is happy to stay where it is, literally and figuratively.

The Middleburg Film Festival runs Oct. 13-16 at the Salamander Resort and Spa, Middleburg, Va. middleburgfilm.org

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