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Sheila Johnson Talks Middleburg Film Festival and Passion for the Arts

by Donna Owens /
2016 CLIO Sports AwardsNoam Galai / WireImage

When it comes to famous film festivals in America and beyond, names like Sundance, Tribeca, and Cannes often come to mind. And if mogul Sheila C. Johnson has her way, the Middleburg Film Festival she founded will also garner both name recognition and respect in cinematic circles.

Johnson is best known as the co-founder of Black Entertainment Television (BET), which made her a billionaire upon its sale to Viacom more than a decade ago. Along the way, the entrepreneur and philanthropist has also served as executive producer of four documentary films and helped finance the feature film "The Butler" directed by Lee Daniels.

Now she's helming a film fest that draws not only a host of cinephiles but Hollywood glitterati and political power players. It's not held in a big city, but in Middleburg, a historic town in the heart of Virginia's horse and wine country. Already several events have sold out.

 Sheila Johnson attends The Jefferson Awards Foundation 2017 DC National Ceremony at Capital Hilton on June 22, 2017 in Washington, DC. Larry French / Getty Images for Jefferson Award

Working in tandem with Susan Koch, the festivals' executive director, and other experts, Johnson has carefully curated a slate of 25 films for cinema lovers. They include narrative and documentary films, foreign films, and regional premieres. In previous years, dozens of festival selections have gone on to become Oscar contenders and winners, including "Moonlight," "La La Land," and "Lion."

The movies are being screened in an intimate theatre environment, coupled with renowned filmmakers and actors on hand for post-viewing chats and special events, among them a symphony orchestra concert honoring renowned film composer, Nicholas Britell.

NBCBLK spoke with Johnson by phone amid the four-day festival, which kicked off Thursday and wraps on Sunday.

[The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity]

NBCBLK: You reside in the Middleburg community and are CEO of Salamander Hotels and Resorts, a hospitality company which built the upscale Salamander Resort & Spa in 2013. Some festival events will take place on the sprawling bucolic property. What do you think makes this festival setting unique?

There's a vibe here that's just so different from other festivals. There’s a warmth, an intimacy. The intellect of our audience offers a great platform for discussion. I'm a former board member of the Sundance Institute, and one of the reasons I launched a festival is that I have attended many festivals over the years and sometimes they're great, sometimes not.

Once, I recall a man seated near me who said, "I can't sit through this." I wanted to have some say in curating a selection of amazing films.

Related: Sheila Johnson’s 2016 Middleburg Film Fest Kicks Off

What are some of the films you will show this year?

We opened with the "Darkest Hour", starring Academy Award-nominated actor Gary Oldman. It’s a wartime drama and he plays Winston Churchill.

"Lady Bird" is another film, and it's the directorial debut of actress Greta Gerwig. We're excited to welcome her and other talented female directors including Dee Rees and Valerie Faris.

Another spotlight film is "I, Tonya" featuring Margot Robbie as the skater Tonya Harding in the scandal that rocked the 1994 Winter Olympics.

We'll also honor James Ivory [one half of the iconic filmmaking duo Merchant/Ivory], who's had 60 years of stunning filmmaking. His latest achievement is "Call Me By Your Name".

Dee Rees is an African-American director whose projects include "Bessie" and "Pariah". You will screen her latest film "Mudbound", correct?

Yes. The film is set in the Jim Crow South and tells the epic story of two men divided by race yet bound by war. Mary J. Blige is one of its stars.

Rees is attending the festival, correct?

Yes, I was one of the backers of her film "Pariah". I hope she remembers me [laughter]. She will receive the 2017 Visionary Award on October 21, presented by Lee Daniels. Lee is a dear friend and a previous festival guest.

 Sheila Johnson poses with actress Emma Stone, writer and director Damien Chazelle and festival director Susan Koch at the Middleburg Film Festival in 2016. Courtesy Middleburg Film Festival

You’re well known as the co-founder of BET. As a mogul you’ve broken ground as an African-American woman with ownership in three professional sports teams. Meanwhile, your numerous ventures have ranged from an aviation company to a line of designer scarves. How does film tie into this?

I've sort of come full circle. As a violinist who earned a degree in music (BA at the University of Illinois) the arts have long been the foundation of my life.

From the very beginning, it’s been important for us to present diverse voices in filmmaking. Especially in these divisive times, films have a way of bringing people together, expanding our understanding of the world, and encouraging dialogue.

What are some of your other projects these days?

Besides the arts, I'm a longtime supporter of education. I've been engaged with young people at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. So far, we’ve worked with 40 students; we hold leadership retreats with people like John Lewis and Donna Brazile.

My newest hotel is in New Orleans. It’s gorgeous. The Middleburg resort property is beautiful, and our film viewers will get to experience it. I'm very excited.

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