Access Pollywood: Middleburg Film Festival

by Laura

Philanthropist Sheila Johnson brings a taste of Sundance to Middleburg. 

By John Arundel

Susan Koch with Sheila Johnson at the Middleburg Film Fesitval. (Photo by Jonah Koch)

For years the philanthropist and business executive Sheila C. Johnson attended the Sundance Film Festival, funding small projects like the 2008 indie hit “Kicking It,” egged on by founder Robert Redford who wanted to lure more deep-pocketed investors like her to Park City to support the spirit of independent film.

“I guess from the first time I went to Sundance I was hooked,” Johnson said at a news conference at Boxwood Winery in Middleburg. “So five years later I’ve decided to bring that level of excitement here to Middleburg, with our own film festival. Lovers of film like me can come and shop in our stores, eat in our restaurants and see some very interesting new independent films you may never see in the big film houses.”

With her new $100 million Salamander Inn & Resort scheduled to open this August in Middleburg, Johnson is bringing another major attraction to the streets of the bucolic country village: the Middleburg Film Festival, set to roll from October 25-27, 2013. Johnson said the festival will present three days of the best in independent film, with a carefully curated selection of narrative and documentary films that will screen in an intimate theatre environment, followed by thoughtful and lively conversations with world-renowned filmmakers and actors, film subjects and opinion leaders.

“We hope it will be distinguished by a carefully selected slate of films, the spectacular setting, and insightful and thoughtful panels and conversations,” said Susan Koch, the festival’s executive director.

The films will include current festival favorites, premieres, and Academy Award contenders, and Johnson has reached into her deep rolodex to bring to town a few special guests and emcees, including Sen. Chris Dodd, CEO of the Motion Picture Association of America, Vanity Fair correspondent Maureen Orth, acclaimed director Lee Daniels (Precious, The Butler), and Gov. Bob McDonnell (R-VA.)

The weekend will kick off with a festive “Meet the Artists” dinner of casual conversation with distinguished filmmakers and actors. Other events tentatively scheduled include panel discussions and conversations with filmmakers, artists and industry reps. The weekend closes with a special Awards Brunch recognizing the audience’s favorite films of the festival

Official festival venues include the Salamander Resort & Spa, Boxwood Estate Winery, the Hill School, the Middleburg Community Center, the historic Red Fox Inn, and the Middleburg Country Inn.

Johnson’s first foray into the world of independent film came with the 2008 indie hit, “Kicking It,” a sports documentary written and directed by Koch and starring Colin Farrell, which follows six players as they set off for Cape Town, South Africa to play in the Homeless World Cup. The 98-minute film, depicting the lives of homeless people as they’re changed forever through an international soccer competition, premiered at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival and was instantly an indie hit, introducing the concept of “filmanthropy” to the entertainment world, as it was executive produced by Johnson and other impassioned philanthropists from Washington including Ted Leonsis, Jack Davies, Raul Fernandez, Mark Ein, Nigel Morris, Russ Ramsey, Doug Smith and Soroush Shehabi.

In the years since, Johnson has served as executive producer of three other documentary films: A Powerful Noise, which premiered at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, She Is the Matador, and The Other City, a critically-acclaimed portrayal of the HIV/AIDS crisis in Washington DC, which premiered at the 2010 Tribeca Film Festival.

The documentary premiered to wide acclaim in New York, where it was discussed by an A-List panel, including U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin and clothing designer Kenneth Cole.

“It’s that level of energy we want to bring here,” said Johnson, who lives nearby on a horse farm in The Plains with her husband, Fairfax County judge William T. Newman Jr. “There’s no doubt that … Middleburg is the perfect setting for a world-class film festival. It’s our goal that festival goers will be able to experience all the great things that Middleburg has to offer, from the great shops to restaurants [and] delicious wines.”

For more information on the festival, visit

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