Ebertfest 2014 to maintain message, atmosphere of late host, founder

By Declan Harty

For the first time in its 16 years, Ebertfest is being planned without longtime host and co-creator Roger Ebert — University alumnus, Urbana native and the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Ebert passed away in April 2013 due to thyroid and salivary gland cancer, leaving behind many things, including his annual Champaign film festival: Ebertfest.

The festival, which will occur April 23-27 next spring, will show approximately 12 movies throughout five days at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign. Festival passes, which are limited to 1,000, went on sale Friday. Passes are “selling great,” according to Steven Bentz, director of the Virginia Theatre, especially online.

“Most (years) we sell out of festival passes, and we expect that again for 2014,” said Mary Susan Britt, associate festival director and director of advancement for the College of Media.

Britt said right now, this year’s passes are selling at the same rate that they did this time last year.

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Tickets for individual film screenings go on sale April 1, 2014, through the Virginia Theatre, the festival’s home since its beginning in 1999. Individual tickets are priced at $14 with a $2 discount for University students and senior citizens.

Britt, along with co-creator and festival director Nate Kohn and Chaz Ebert, the wife of the late Roger Ebert, are putting Ebertfest together for its 16th year. Chaz Ebert will also take over as host for the festival after assisting in that capacity in recent years.

Kohn said that the festival has remained the same since its inception in 1999, with the exception of a name change occurring in 2007 from Roger Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival to the current name of Ebertfest. The festival has maintained a community base by not expanding to larger venues after the success of Ebertfest.

“We went into it without expectations,” Kohn said. “There is always a temptation, once something becomes successful, to make it bigger, but we decided that it was perfect as it is, and we have almost kept it that way since the beginning.”

After 15 festivals, Ebertfest has continued many practices that were established in its early years. With the death of Ebert, festival coordinators hope to continue these practices and Ebert’s mission in this spring’s festival.

“The festival is celebratory; it celebrates great films which is something Roger considered his charge in life,” Kohn said. “The festival was designed to highlight films that Roger felt hadn’t received the attention they deserved.”

A decision normally made by Kohn, Ebert and Chaz, the movie selection process will be only differed by the loss of Ebert. According to Kohn, Ebertfest 2014’s films will be selected in the same manner, but through a discussion with just Chaz and Kohn with “the spirit of Roger standing on our shoulders.”

“It is just an informal, easy-going festival where people have time to mingle and talk with our guests,” Britt said. “With our on-stage discussions with each film, it breaks down that mystery of how films are made. … As the filmmakers stay for the whole five days, it just becomes more of a community.”

The festival has no real criteria for films, according to Kohn. Over the course of its 15 years, Ebertfest has attempted to display a variety of films, including a 70 mm film, a documentary, a film with music, films by well-known directors and low-budget independent films that still are looking to find distribution. These types of films reflect the informal formula that the festival has tried to maintain since its creation, Kohn said.

All 12 films of Ebertfest 2014 will be shown at downtown Champaign’s Virginia Theatre, which seats 1,500. The theater has special significance for the film festival, as it was the childhood movie theater of Roger Ebert in his hometown community.

“It was a place that Roger went as a child to view movies, as his dad did,” Britt said. “It is just a wonderful 1920s movie palace, and they don’t make these movie palaces anymore. It is just a wonderful place to have Ebertfest, year after year.”

The theater, which is owned and operated by the Champaign Park District, opened in 1921 and is rented out by Ebertfest for the festival. Bentz said the festival is “without question” the theater’s largest event of the year. According to Bentz, Ebertfest and the Virginia Theatre are connected not only due to Roger’s ties with the theater, but also for the festival’s worldwide reputation.

“This is something that has brought a degree of notoriety to this theater that is simply extraordinary,” Bentz said. “We are excited to continue working with the organizers of Ebertfest in making it something that honors Roger’s memory and also the spirit of the festival that he created.”

Declan can be reached at [email protected].