“We’re situated in horse and wine country, which makes for a very intimate setting,” says Johnson, who founded the festival in 2012. Since when it has grown considerably.
“We’re attracting roughly 4,000 visitors, and we’re a completely walkable festival,” Koch says. “We’ll be screening 25 films at various venues all across town, and even if we don’t have a traditional theater in Middleburg, that hasn’t stopped us from putting on a terrific event. Everything from the town’s community center to the library to the performing arts school is retrofitted with DCP technology for the screenings. When Damien Chazelle visited last year, he was extremely excited about the quality of the presentation of ‘La La Land.’ ”
The festival kicks off with Joe Wright’s WWII drama “The Darkest Hour,” which has been garnering strong buzz for Gary Oldman’s performance as Winston Churchill. Co-star Ben Mendelsohn, who portrays King George VI, screenwriter Anthony McCarten and producer Lisa Bruce will be in attendance, and will participate in a conversation following the screening. Centerpiece screenings include Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut “Lady Bird,” and Martin McDonagh’s crime drama “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Spotlight selections include Luca Guadagnino’s “Call Me by Your Name,” Dee Rees’ “Mudbound” and Craig Gillespie’s “I, Tonya.”
“Because we only showcase 25 films, our slate is carefully curated,” says Johnson. “We’ve become known for the quality of our overall line-up. Diversity is always a key factor for us, and this year, 25% of the films we’re celebrating were directed by women. We also take a strong look at foreign-language films, and this year, we have seven set to screen.”
Other notable films that will show in Middleburg include “Battle of the Sexes,” “Breathe,” “A Fantastic Woman,” “Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold,” “Last Flag Flying,” “Wonderstruck” and “The Square.” James Ivory (“Call Me by Your Name”) will receive the fest’s Legacy Award. Critic John Horn will interview composer Nicholas Britell (“Battle of the Sexes”), who will be working with a 75-piece student symphony. Local high-school musicians will also get a chance to learn from a major Hollywood composer.
The bucolic country setting of Middleburg further adds to the charm. “We’re in fall foliage season during the festival, and as we’re out in vineyard territory, everything is simply beautiful,” Koch says. “Our original mission was to create four days of fantastic films in a stunning setting, and we think we’ve achieved that promise.”
And because of Middleburg’s close proximity to D.C., “that mutual fascination between Washington and Hollywood certainly exists,” says Johnson. “We’re now getting many returning guests, and we’re always trying to attract an interesting mix of people to our screenings. We’ve had government officials attend, and we try to stay politically and socially relevant with our content. It’s all about building a strong sense of community with our festival, and opening up smart, social dialogue with the guests and filmmakers.”
“We’ve doubled our advance ticket package sales from last year, which is very exciting for us,” notes Koch. “We have roughly 150 volunteers and a full-time staff of under a dozen, but the dedication from everyone is what carries the day.”
Koch also reserves praise for festival founder Johnson. “Sheila has so much vision and drive, and when she said that she wanted to create a film festival in Middleburg, some people thought it would be impossible. Without her amazing and continuing efforts, none of this would be possible.”