Yesterday, we had to make the hard decision to cancel the Roger Ebert Film Festival.
Ebertfest 2020 was set to begin Wednesday, April 15th, in Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. This would have been the 22nd year of the festival that Roger and I co-founded at the University of Illinois. Many events have had to be cancelled worldwide, so why do I feel such sadness over this? Is it possible that the communal aspect of a film festival can be good for you? I think so! We describe Ebertfest as a movie lovers festival, and it is that. We have no competitions nor commercial enterprises, simply movie fans gathered almost as a family to celebrate films and each other.
Roger said that films can ennoble us and generate empathy for people different than us. The curation of the films are so important. We carefully choose a mix of independent films and blockbusters, foreign films and documentaries, silent films and current ones. We purposely planned the festival so that we could all watch the same film at the same time in the Virginia Theatre, a lovely restored movie palace that seats about 1600 and boasts a full-throated organ that a professional organist plays cheerfully every festival. We have a huge screen of the size that I’ve only seen at the Cannes Film Festival, and a state-of-the-art sound system. We made a decision to maintain the ability to show celluloid film as well as 70 mm films, Todd A-O projected films and the current digital forms, all excellently projected by James Bond (that’s his real name), our revered projectionist. He beams with pride when a director inevitably congratulates us for the success of the projection.
And our audiences also reflect that appreciation. Made up of out-of-towners as well as locals, business people as well as students, and women and men of all demographics, our audiences are so warm and welcoming and appreciative of our filmmaker guests. But here is something that is as uniquely important, our audiences are equally warm and welcoming and appreciative of each other. People made friends here, they started groups here, they found love here, they got married here and started families here. It is so beautiful to behold. I can’t even begin to tell you how many endorphins and other positive neurotransmitters our bodies and brain manufacture while watching the movies and passionately discussing them as a community. But I can tell you this, once, after Roger had been in the hospital for an extended period of time, Ebertfest made him so happy that he experienced a spontaneous healing of a surgical scar. After one day of Ebertfest we saw a physically manifested miracle. To me there is a miracle in connecting with our shared humanity, and I hope we don’t forget that in this time of crisis.
Now, I don’t want to sound like a circus-barker, but this is truly an event that contributes the kind of joy that Roger felt it was our duty as inhabitants of this planet to contribute. And he loved this festival. He loved gathering with me and festival director Nate Kohn to get it started, he loved choosing the films and choosing the filmmakers and planning surprises and welcoming our guests and anticipating their responses and participating in the Q&A sessions and stopping to chat with the audiences in lines and giving parties and taking everyone out to the Steak and Shake late at night when the day’s screenings were over. After he crossed into the mystery in 2013, Nate and I did our best to continue the magic of the festival. We did it for our audiences, but we did it for ourselves as well. So you understand why this cancellation hurts.
The reason we cancelled, as so many other events are doing, is out of the abundance of caution against exposing people to the coronavirus, COVID 19. I find it ironic that it is taking a virus to make us stop and take stock of where we are in the world. It is urging us to “socially distance” ourselves from each other at a time when we want to be connected to something greater than ourselves. We want to know that we don’t have to go it alone. You can rest assured, however, that Ebertfest has every intention of coming back April 14-17, 2021. But for now, since we are a University sponsored event, it has been decreed that all sponsored events with more than 50 attendees will be suspended indefinitely, effective Friday, March 13th. The Virginia Theatre will help coordinate reimbursements to festival pass holders who can’t make the 2020 festival, but we hope that audience members and sponsors will take advantage of keeping their passes and pledges for next year so that the festival can return stronger than ever.
Nate, and festival coordinator Andy Hall and I were all so excited about the lineup for the festival. Our theme this year was to be “Transformations.” We announced some of the movies: “The Cotton Club Encore,” “Hereditary,” “There's Something About Mary,” and an Alfred Hitchcock film (“Vertigo,” by the way, with the hopes of Kim Novak appearing). But we didn’t get to tell you about some of the documentaries showing true transformations like “Fantastic Fungi” by Louie Schwartberg, and “A Most Beautiful Thing,” by Mary Mazzio (read here). A surprise guest was actor Rob Schneider, with a film he directed about a character’s transformation (“The Chosen One”). Schneider himself played a role in Roger’s life that caused them both to transform personally and have a change of heart (read here). It would have been powerful to have him speak with the audience about his own transformations. Directors Andy Davis and Michael Apted were returning with films about transformations (“Stony Island,” “63 Up“), as was producer Andrew Miano (“The Farewell” award winning director Lulu Wang). And other delights.
We didn’t forget the musical aspect of our festival. Our friends the ALLOY ORCHESTRA in their 30th year as a group, were returning with the new score to the silent film “Gallery of Monsters”. And, as a surprise we were opening the festival with Eef Barzelay in person! He was interrupting his tour to appear on our stage to perform a song he penned as Clem Snide, entitled “Roger Ebert!” (listen here) Oh the emotion that would have engendered in the theater on opening night. Kathryn Bostick, the award winning multi-hyphenate composer-singer-producer, would have charmed us after the opening night film. Rob Schneider himself also has a band, and one of the actors in his film, Chas Edelstein, was invited to perform. Actually, I feel happy just writing about it.
In the meantime, I want to share the joy of looking back at last year’s festival. This exclusive footage from Ebertfest 2019 includes appearances by such cherished guests as “Bound” stars Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly, “Won't You Be My Neighbor?” director Morgan Neville, Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Michael Barker, “A Year of the Quiet Sun” star Maja Komorowska, “Ebert & Roeper” co-host Richard Roeper, “Sideways” star Virginia Madsen and many many more. I hope this retrospective, produced by Shatterglass Studios, brings you as much joy as it does me.