The Daily Illini

The history of Roger Ebert’s famed film festival


The idea to create Ebertfest was born out of a five-day festival in March 1997 called Cyberfest, which was a birthday party for the fictional computer “Hal” from the 1968 novel and film, “2001: A Space Odyssey.” In the story, Hal became operational in 1997 in Urbana, Ill.

Cyberfest was started by the University’s Chancellor’s Office, said Nate Kohn, who has been the director of Ebertfest since it started in 1999. 

“Because of the large computer science presence at Illinois, they thought it would be a really good idea to celebrate the computer and the film at a University-wide event,” Kohn said.

Roger Ebert — who at the time was a Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times — was invited to host the Cyberfest Gala at the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, and the screening of Stanley Kubrick’s film on its original 70-millimeter stereo format at the Virginia Theatre.

Kohn worked with Ebert in producing the event. Kohn was born and raised in Urbana like Ebert, and he was a freshman at Urbana High School when Ebert was a senior. However, he didn’t get to know him on a personal level until they worked on Cyberfest together.

After the success of the event, faculty from the College of Communications (now Media) suggested holding an annual film festival hosted by Ebert, according to Betsy Hendrick, friend of Ebert and sponsor of Eberfest. 

“I was really very excited when I heard about it,” said Hendrick, owner and operator of Hendrick House. “Because even though Roger loved Urbana and Champaign, all of his immediate family in this area had passed away, and I would think, ‘I wonder what will bring Roger back here again to visit?’”

By that time, Ebert was very busy, traveling the world, attending multiple film festivals and doing review after review, Hendrick said. 

“So the idea of the film festival was just great,” she said.

The first film festival, which was called the “Overlooked Film Festival,” kicked off in April 1999. The film festival was hosted at the Virginia Theatre, which has continued to house the festival for the past 14 years. 

“Every movie lover has shared the melancholy experience of finding a film to truly love — and then discovering that most people have never heard of it,” he wrote in his welcome message for the inaugural event. “When I was asked by the College of Communications to host a film festival at the University of Illinois, my first thought was of such films.” The first festival was dedicated to the memory of Gene Siskel, Ebert’s former co-host on “At the Movies,” according to the website. 

“It was a great joy to work with him,” Kohn said. “He was very involved in every aspect of the festival. He reviewed movies like nobody else on the face of the earth. It was just such a pleasure to have him as a part of this festival.”

Kohn would help Ebert every year with choosing which movies to show at the annual festival.

“It was a very informal process. Roger and I would put together a list of about a hundred movies and that we thought might be interesting to have in the festival,” he said. “We would just slowly, over the space of several months, cut down the list until we had about 12 pictures.”

In 2008, the name was changed from “Overlooked Film Festival” to “Ebertfest.” In a 2009 TIME interview, he said, “Some filmmakers demurred at having their films seem ‘prematurely overlooked.’”

Kohn said every festival since the original has been a tremendous success. Ebert attended every Ebertfest except for the one in 2008 because of a fractured hip. The theatre would always sell out all of their festival passes before they even announced the films, which displays the faith the audience had in Ebert’s selection of films.

Hendrick said that during the festival, Ebert gave an introspective review of the movies he would discuss at the panel discussions.

“We all used to enjoy when he would lead the panel discussions after the films because he would bring up things that many people that were directly involved with the film didn’t remember. He’s very good at that,” Hendrick said. “I admire him so much and how he appreciated other people and their stories and their backgrounds, and I think I picked up a lot of that from Roger.”

Steven Bentz, director of the Virginia Theatre, also commented on Ebert’s impact at the theater. 

“Roger Ebert was such an important and good friend of this theater, always,” Bentz said. “And when he was here, there was an electricity in the air. People were always very happy to see Roger come in that front door.”

Alison can be reached at [email protected]

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