It is very hard to recreate the experience of being at a film festival — any film festival — at home. But Ebertfest’s brand new iPad app is not only beautifully designed and easy to use, it does a really impressive job of bringing the flavor of Ebertfest into your own living room. All that’s missing is the Steak ‘N Shake.
I just got back to my hotel room after the very moving opening night of Ebertfest 2013 and immediately continued the day’s celebration by touring through Ebertfests Past on the app. It features separate virtual archives for each of the festival’s fifteen years, with a .pdf of the original print program, Ebert’s introductory message, and individual pages for every single movie featured in that Ebertfest lineup. In turn, each movie’s page includes Ebert’s print review or Great Movies essay, as well as — and here’s the really cool part (note: possibly only really cool to a mega-dweeb like me) — video of the Q&As for the films, which were all, until recent years, conducted by Ebert himself.
So, for example, Tuesday night while I should have been sleeping before a long day of travel, I watched Ebert’s introduction for a 70mm screening of “2001: A Space Odyssey” followed by his Q&A with star Keir Dullea, Kubrick documentarian Jan Harlan, and (live via phone from Sri Lanka) Sir Arthur C. Clarke. The whole video runs over an hour. As I write this, I’m listening to Ebert and Terry Zwigoff discuss one of my all-time favorites, “Bad Santa.” For Ebert fans like myself, it’s a treasure trove of never-before-seen material.
Fair warning, though: it’s not quite complete yet. There were no video recordings made at the first two Ebertfests, and about 30% of the Q&As from subsequent years haven’t been uploaded yet. The good news, according to the app’s co-developer Luke Boyce, is that it’s a relatively simple process to add them to the app, and he says he expects most or all of the missing files to work by next week. Which is good, because I’m dying to watch the one featuring Ang Lee’s “Hulk.”
Boyce told me he and his partner Brett Hays pitched the Eberts on the idea of a virtual version of a coffee table book to celebrate the festival’s fifteenth anniversary. They’ve been developing it for over a year and a half, and their plan, he says, is to continuing updating it with photo galleries, movie and guest indexes, and video from each new Ebertfest starting with the 2013 edition.
The app, which is currently only available for iPad, is regularly priced at $12.99; it’s on sale during Ebertfest (which runs through Sunday) for $6.99. If I wasn’t in Champaign, I’d get this thing, and program my own Best of Ebertfest night at home: pick out a couple of titles that are available on Netflix or Hulu (like “Shotgun Stories” and “George Washington“), then follow each one up with the Q&A from the app. It won’t be as good as the real thing — but it’ll actually come pretty close.
Check out the Ebertfest App in iTunes.