Photos by Shannon Finney

The Middleburg Film Festival (MFF) celebrated its eighth year, despite a global pandemic greatly affecting the way national movie theaters and film festivals operate this year. Rising to the challenge, the MFF team found creative ways to showcase a critically-acclaimed lineup of virtual films and establish safe, socially-distanced in-person screenings at the Salamander Resort throughout the four days of the festival from October 15-18th.

“I’m thrilled that they kept it going so we could enjoy the whole movie experience, because the quality is a big 10,” Rob Banner says, an Orlean resident who has been attending the film festival since it began in 2013. He has served as a festival volunteer and venue manager in the past.

“I love that they were able to accommodate these crazy COVID times and make it work,” Verna Stern says, a first-time festival goer. “It’s a great time of year to do it.” For those opting to do in-person screenings, films were shown at 6:45 p.m. and 9:15 p.m. on 40-foot blowup screens in two Salamander Resort locations, the grand lawn and the lower parking lot.

The drive-in “theater” located in the lower parking lot proved to be popular, selling out almost immediately when tickets went on sale. Pass holders got first priority, followed by first come, first serve ticket buyers. “I was partial to the drive-in because I’ve never been to one before,” Charles Bright says, an Arlington resident who has been coming to the festival since 2016 and saw films at both venues. “Volunteers were taking temperatures before you parked your car. I thought the actual physical part was extremely well run and safety was taken very seriously.”

Patrons were given a “Movie Night” gift bag containing popcorn, movie theater candy, and a bottle of water. For some, the experience felt reminiscent of 1950s drive-ins. At the height of its popularity, drive-ins were located in over 4,000 rural areas throughout the U.S., made popular by the Baby Boomer generation. “We loved it, it was really fun to be in the car with friends,” Julie Banner says, “It was a great way to see a film and had such a nostalgic feel. We had a great time!”

Top: Julie and Robert Banner with Verna Stern. Photo by Laticia Headings.

Food trucks were also part of the novel event. Ford’s Fish Shack, Eugene’s Sausage & Fries, and Lombardo’s Detroit-Styled Pizza had food offerings for purchase, and a bar was set up for those who wanted to imbibe. There was also an onsite restroom trailer.

Simultaneously, on the grand lawn of the Salamander Resort, ticket holders had a unique outdoor experience. Sitting on chairs and cozied under blankets provided by the resort, enthusiastic patrons weathered three clear, but brisk nights under the stars. “Being out on the lawn was very unique and just lovely, almost like summer camp,” Gordon Dale says, a part-time Middleburg resident.

Every effort was made to keep film goers safely socially-distanced on the lawn. In addition to mandatory temperature checks, the festival team installed bright yellow ground markers to indicate areas where viewers could set up to watch the film.

“The layout was great. Everyone was wonderfully spaced,” Dale says, who saw early and late films on the lawn and at the drive-in. “It’s a beautiful place to watch the sun go down. You could gradually see the Middleburg Film Festival logo appear on the screen as the sun dropped down which I thought was cool.”

Patrons on the lawn were also given movie gift bags and had the option to purchase a hot meal or snack at the food tent or grab a glass of wine from the Ta-Da! Travel Bar. Guests staying at the Salamander with rooms overlooking the grand lawn were able to watch films from their balconies, all part of the charming ambiance. 

Virtually, those who purchased tickets had a 24-hour watch window to view films in the comfort of their own homes. There was a diverse selection of MFF award tributes, as well as Q&A’s with filmmakers and actors. 

Kris Bowers, this year’s distinguished film composer honoree, recorded a concert at the Capitol Records studio in Los Angeles, playing on the same piano used by Nat King Cole. Special guest Andra Day accompanied him on two songs, making for a memorable performance. 

Though special accommodations were made this year because of current events, some hope to see the same setup in the future. “I’m really hoping they continue with the outdoor venues. The popular support is there,” Banner says. 

One thing is for sure: the Middleburg Film Festival is here to stay! ML

Published in the November 2020 issue of Middleburg Life.