MIDDLEBURG, VA – If there is a quiet period in the Oscar race it would appear to be the month of October. The weeks between the New York Film Festival and the Governors Awards, however, are actually busier than ever. The month finds prime BAFTA campaigning at the London Film Festival and is scattered with smaller fests stateside from Mill Valley to the Hamptons to Savannah to Middleburg. In these festivals, awards contenders make the rounds with well-off attendees who look like they hopped out of an episode of “Succession,” hoping to scrounge up support wherever they can find it. Of course, some of these festivals are simply used as word of mouth screenings, but a few of them actually have honest to god AMPAS and major guild members on hand. The Middleburg Film Festival is the newest of these events and in the never-ending campaign for studios to fight for every possible vote, its proximity to Washington, D.C. is allowing it to have a notable impact.
For a festival that is just eight-years-old, Middleburg features former Sundance veterans coordinating screenings, major sponsorship from Coca-Cola, FedEx and Morgan Stanley (the Park City mainstay would salivate over those sorts of partners) and major names on hand to pound the flesh. This year Noah Baumbach presented the opening night film, “Marriage Story,” Sterling K. Brown brought the star power for “Waves,” Anthony McCarten was a fixture for “The Two Popes” and Rodrigo Prieto represented “The Irishman.” And if you’re an awards contender that hasn’t hit the D.C. Metro area yet you were likely there. “Jojo Rabbit,” “Ford v Ferrari,” “Knives Out,” “Invisible Life,” “Atlantics,” “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “Honey Boy,” “The Aeronauts,” “Clemency,” “Harriet,” “A Hidden Life,” “Les Miserables,” “Motherless Brooklyn,” “The Traitor” and “Parasite,” among others, all screened. If you were a voting member in the DC area you could catch up on a slew of contenders in the context of just one-weekend. Think of it as Telluride for the Politico set.
In fact, there were enough AMPAS members there that publicists were saving seats for them (not something you would experience in Savannah, for instance). If you’re Shelia Johnson, the festival’s one-time billionaire founder, you have to be pondering the possibilities of just how big it can grow. The is untaped potential for younger cinephiles (it’s not shade to note the crowd made this writer feel young as though the world were new) and adding showtimes from 10 PM on might allow for more second screenings (and more diverse ticketbuyers). But Hollywood recognizes the value of the audience Johnson has already curated and, frankly, that might be enough for now.
It also can’t be underestimated how much every publicity break, every event and every handshake can mean in such a truncated season. This is one pundit who believes in the mantra, “You win Best Picture in Phase One.” In a year where there “appears” to be no clear frontrunner trekking to Mill Valley, the Hamptons and even Middleburg could mean everything.