If you build it, they will come.
And, so, billionaire Sheila Johnson, co-founder of BET and owner or partner in three professional sports franchises (Washington's Wizards, Capitals and Mystics) has staked her claim in her adopted hometown of Middleburg, Virginia. Last week, Johnson launched a film festival in the horsey high-income suburb of Washington, D.C., that has been home to Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Duvall, and Jack Kent Cooke.
If the full auditoriums during the festival are any indication: She built it, and they came.
MFF attracted the attention of Yahoo Movies because it was rich in potential academy award nominees, including the Johnson-executive-produced contender, "Lee Daniels' The Butler." Starring Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey, the fictionalized account of a long-serving White House butler opened at number one and has grossed $115 million domestically. In attendance was Lee Daniels, notable for wearing a pajama top to the gala U.S. Premiere of the rival biopic "Mandela: The Long Walk to Freedom."
The MFF gave Yahoo Movies a chance to scratch a few more Oscar-bound contenders off our to-see list, including the Mandela biopic:
• "Mandela: the Long Walk to Freedom": It’s just that: a very long walk through a great man’s biography. South African President Nelson Mandela gets the "Gandhi" treatment, but this biopic, while fascinating bit by bit, doesn't ever gain narrative speed or power. True: Idris Elba ("Prometheus") is monumental in the title role and has potential to make Oscar's Best Actor shortlist. However, the surprise is that there hasn’t been more buzz for Naomie Harris ("Skyfall") in the supporting role as Winnie Mandela. Overall, the movie will likely get acting attention, but no love for director or writer, and only a token spot on the Best Pictures nomination lists, if at all.
• "August: Osage County": Yes, Meryl Streep will be nominated again! Here, she plays the pill-popping matriarch of an Oklahoma family that's given the salt-on-snails treatment. Based on the Tracy Letts's play, the revelation is how very good Julia Roberts is in a role that takes us all the way back to the freshness of "Mystic Pizza." Her Supporting Actress nom is a lock, while the role does border on lead. But seeing it as a movie — especially one laden with stars like Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chris Cooper, Abigain Breslin, and Margo Martindale — also makes its weaknesses apparent. John Wells's direction is B/B- at best, and that means that overall it will be a long shot contender for Best Picture.
• "Philomena": It's no surprise that this ripped-from-the-headlines film won the MFF Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature. The crowd-pleaser follows an Irish senior citizen named Philomena (Dame Judi Dench), a passionate Catholic that tries to find the son she was forced to give up for adoption by the nuns (after a satisfying but forbidden one-night fling). Steve Coogan, who also co-wrote the screenplay, plays the cynical reporter on the trail of a human interest story when he has hardly any interests in humans. Teamed with Dench and director Stephen Frears ("The Queen"), they bring the perfect level of dryness to a story that could have been dreadfully drippy. Dench is a lock for a Best Actress nomination and the screenplay should be recognized in the Best Adapted category. In a fair world, Coogan would be up for a supporting nom himself — but this isn't a fair world. Still, given its popularity and word of mouth, "Philomena" will land solidly on the Best Picture nominations list.
[Related: Dench: Lots of Laughs on 'Philomena']
Over four days, and alongside 2,500 attendees, there was also time to sample movies that lay outside the Oscar race. One notable nonfiction feature was Snag Films' "Lost for Life." Director Joshua Rofe has created a tight, extremely well-researched documentary that addresses juvenile offenders with a record of heinous crimes sentenced to life without parole — hence they are lost, for life. The movie allows the audience to have an internal debate about the justice of this irrevocable sentence for juvenile offenders. But its power lies in the director's ability to get up close and pull the truth from his subjects, like one man now in his twenties who killed a fellow high school student with almost no motive and no previous indications of violent behavior. The result is a movie that is both shocking and revealing about the American justice system and the children in our midst.
Overall, with Johnson’s amazing track record — BET, "The Butler," the sports franchises, and resorts to boot — it's a safe bet that the Middleburg Film Festival will carve out a place for itself in the crowded festival season. While its identity has yet to be fully formed, MFF's unique access to Washington power brokers and ability to attract strong films, and Johnson’s passion to create a think tank at her resort, indicate that we may just be in on an inaugural event that will become a major partner in the Oscar dance.