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‘Roger Ebert could judge a film for what it was’: Indie Executives Tell Indiewire Why They Loved Roger Ebert

'Roger Ebert could judge a film for what it was': Indie Executives Tell Indiewire Why They Loved Roger Ebert

Throughout the week, Indiewire will feature remembrances of Roger Ebert from across the industry. Today, we’re focusing on the indie executives. Yesterday, we ran thoughts from filmmakers.

Ryan Werner, freelance consultant/formerly IFC Films:

Last week as I was leaving my job at IFC Films, I received an email from Roger Ebert from the hospital wishing me well. I’ll treasure it forever.  Like most people my age who grew up in the suburbs, I realized movies were something more than entertainment from Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel. I remember the first time I saw Roger Ebert holding court at the Cannes Film Festival in the American Pavilion. It was as thrilling as seeing Catherine Deneuve or Quentin Tarantino.

Many years later I’d travel to his film festival in 2004 with Jonathan Caouette’s one-of-a-kind film “Tarnation.”  It was a great moment where you felt Ebert’s blessing upon the work you were doing. This happened many times over the years and I always felt proud each time. However, that same summer of 2004, I was working with Vincent Gallo at the height of his feud with Ebert after the Cannes premiere of “The Brown Bunny.” Ebert had famously panned the film — so loudly, in fact, that the entire world heard that he had started singing at the end of the screening. Words flew between the two. Once Gallo finished the film months later, I suggested we personally travel to Chicago to show Ebert the film. Before I knew it, Gallo, Liza Burnett Fefferman and I were in Chicago meeting Roger, Chaz and Ray Pride in the lobby of the Lake Street Screening Room. None of knew what would happen. Liza and I left them to screen the film together, scared what we might return to. To our surprise, we found them shaking hands and talking after the screening. That Sunday, Roger published a report of the screening and their meeting. All was forgiven and days later he wrote a positive review of the film exclaiming the importance of editing. It was no doubt a publicity opportunity for everyone involved; however, it was also a showcase for what Roger Ebert was all about. He judged the film as he saw it and didn’t make it personal. Roger definitely had his favorite filmmakers but he could judge a film first and foremost for what it was.  Vincent was thrilled by the results as well. Liza, Vincent and I celebrated in Chicago that night with our local friend Gabe Klinger. We had all been touched by his generous feelings. Today, there are very few critics (let alone people) that a filmmaker could engage in such an exciting feud.  There are even fewer people that settling it with could be as exciting.   I’ll miss Roger Ebert.

Ira Deutchman, Emerging Pictures/Columbia University:

I first encountered Roger Ebert when he was a young film critic at the Chicago Sun-Times. I was going to school in Chicago at the time, and he already had developed a reputation as being someone worth reading. I saw him from afar at the Chicago Film Festival and at other cinephile haunts in the city. After graduation, I moved to New York and starting working in distribution and marketing. I had an understanding of the Chicago market and knew that Ebert had become extraordinarily influential in the city, so I went out of my way to cater to his needs on films that I worked on. I made sure that the ads we ran in Chicago always led off with an Ebert quote (assuming he liked the film) and I would put any New York Times quotes underneath. It was both a show of respect and an acknowledgement of how powerful he had become.

When Roger went on TV with Gene Siskel, the stakes got even higher in that now he was influencing movie viewers all over the country. Fortunately for me, his producer at “At the Movies” was Andrea Gronvall, who was a classmate of mine at Northwestern. So, I kind of had Roger’s ear, even if indirectly. Over those years, Roger’s power had reached the point where he singlehandedly (sometimes with Gene) would create hits out of the most unlikely material. One such film was “My Dinner With Andre,” which Roger saved just as it was about to disappear from screens all over the country. That wasn’t my film, and it caused me major headaches because I had a film waiting in line to open at the prime art houses and after the “Andre” grosses took off, I had to wait many months to get an open screen. The two movies of mine that Roger had the biggest impact on were “El Norte” and of course “Hoop Dreams.” Both were films that had the deck stacked against them, and Roger put both of them on the top of his 10 Best List for the years in which they were released. The rest, as they say, is history.

My personal interactions with Roger were mainly at festivals. He was a regular at Telluride, Toronto and Cannes among others. He was always friendly, loved talking about movies with anyone he encountered, and had fierce opinions on many other subjects, as anyone who followed him on Twitter can attest to. My favorite Roger memory took place at Cannes at some point in the early ’90s. I was on a chartered bus that was to take a bunch of invited guests to a party somewhere up in the hills above the city. As I sat down, I noticed that Roger was on the bus. We started talking. After a while, we realized that the bus was going nowhere. The French speaking driver had no response to why we were just sitting there with the door open. Rather than get testy, Roger started entertaining everyone in the bus. He rattled off one-liner after one-liner and everyone in the bus was in hysterics. He went on for nearly 20 minutes, until finally the doors closed and the bus started to move. Everyone on the bus applauded.That was Roger.

I can’t talk about Roger without mentioning his wife Chaz. What a lovely, caring woman, who fit in with any crowd that Roger brought her to. Since I only saw Roger a few times a year, and he was exposed to so many people, I always wondered whether he would remember who I was. But when Chaz was with him, she always knew right away and greeted me by name. I’m sure many will note with great awe how she stood by Roger’s side through all those years of illness. It was an inspiring relationship between two remarkable people.

Next: “I can think of no public figure who has ever meant more to me.”Michael Barker, Sony Pictures Classics:

“Stop all the clocks, cut off the
I thought that love would last forever,
I was wrong.” W.H. Auden

Roger Ebert. Journalist. Film critic. Philosopher. Humorist. Poet of the people. Raconteur. Friend of the artist (make that all artists). Populist intellectual. Humble. Fearless.

So much to say, so many stories to tell.

My colleague Tom Bernard eloquently told me the other day why Roger Ebert was probably the most popular and influential film critic of all time. When Roger was young he had a driving curiosity, which later became a relentless pursuit, of the idea that movies can explain the complexity of the world to us AND can also show us who we are as individual human beings. Roger proved the capacity of the power of film over and over again in simple words we can all understand. This is why he was a savior to so many filmmakers everywhere, from big Hollywood names to the no budget independents. People all over the world look at movies in a bolder way because of him. His reviews gave subjects like civil rights, social justice and politics an extra clear eyed dimension.

When Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation”) was invited to Ebertfest following his Oscar win last year, he said to me, “You don’t understand how cool it is to be invited there. Roger Ebert is more famous in my country than I am.”

My relationship with Roger (I met him when I was 17, becoming friends decades later) was entirely based on movies and literature. I don’t think I ever had an exchange with him about anything else (up to as recently as a week and a half ago).

His tireless work ethic is the stuff of American legend. Spending hours with him in Champaign, Illinois in the middle of the night at the local Steak N’ Shake, I felt like I was hanging out with Ben Hecht or Eric Hoffer.

His intellect was staggering. One of my favorite stories is when he was interviewing Peter O’ Toole on stage at the Telluride Film Festival. O’Toole was being testy and made it clear he had very low regard for film journalists who “interrogated” him as Roger was doing. At one point, O’Toole, talking about the influence on his life of major poets like Yeats, paused and said, “but, of course, you film interviewers would never know about such things.” Roger squinted a little, was about to say something, stopped himself, then asked O’Toole the next question. A few minutes later, Roger took a big pause, turned to O’Toole and proceeded to recite perfectly and at great length an entire poem by W.B. Yeats. He finished and flashed O’Toole a big smile. Following the audience ovation, from that point forward, a warmer Peter O’Toole treated Roger Ebert as his equal.

But it is in the last 11 years of his life that we all agree Roger became an important inspirational public figure. He looked death squarely in the face and took him on, by using new technology to speak out, uniting the world in sharing movies and ideas with people of all ages. In his final years not only did he become the youngest and most forward thinking voice in the room, but as a bonus he became an even stronger writer, achieving a depth of emotion, irony, and humor we had not seen before. We also have to thank and celebrate his wife Chaz for the major role she has played in Roger’s burst of energy and lifeline. It would not have happened without her.

To those of us who count ourselves as his friends (and we are many, many) words cannot express the magnitude of our loss. Both personally and professionally, I can think of no public figure who has ever meant more to me.

Next: How Ebert saved “My Dinner With Andre.”Kelly Hargraves, First Run Features:

I have a couple memories of working with Ebert, beyond the countless telephone calls we had in the past 20 years — and then email, of course, for the past few. Both are linked to Michael Apted and the “Up” series of films, which Roger is on record as saying they are “one of the most important films ever.” I was instrumental in arranging for Michael to travel to Chicago to be interviewed by Roger as a bonus feature on our box set release. This turned out to be Roger’s last recorded interview, before his surgery. Then a few years later, I was contacted by Michael when the DGA decided to give Roger an Honorary Lifetime Membership to the Guild. I had a lovely preliminary conversation with Roger’s wife Chaz to see if Roger would be up to a trip to LA to accept in person. Of course, he was!

Jeff Lipsky, Adopt Films:

I distributed the cult sensation “My Dinner With Andre” for New Yorker Films. All cults start off with a leader and, along with Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert was that leader. Singularly, Roger and Gene plucked “Andre” from certain obscurity just when its distributor was preparing to abandon it.  That just doesn’t happen anymore. Roger’s then PBS audience was the choir and he preached like nobody’s business. In 1982, on the final day of its 51 week and six day engagement, I asked Roger and Gene to moderate a Q&A with Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory after the final performance at New York’s Lincoln Plaza Cinemas. They unhesitatingly agreed. I have a poor quality audio tape of that magical discussion. Magical. That’s it. That was Roger.  In the coming weeks I will pluck that tape from obscurity and upload it on Indiewire so that this rare, witty, and wise bit of memorabilia will serve as what I’m sure will be many tributes to Roger Ebert in the coming days, weeks, and years. He was singular, he was a friend, he is missed.

David Magdael, David Magdael & Associates:

Sundance 2002 – MId Week Evening Screening – The Library – BETTER LUCK TOMORROW – A film by Justin Lin
As the Q&A was winding down, someone from the audience got up and chastised the director and his cast and crew for making a film that amoral and how the filmmaker did a disservice to his community (the film was about Asian American kids) with this film.  And literally, Ebert stood up for this film and the filmmaker by getting up on his chair and told the audience that this film had a right to be made and how that person would not have said that to a bunch of white filmmakers — and that Asian American characters have the right to be whatever the hell they want to be and they do not have to “represent” their people.

That moment changed a lot of lives and inspired many more Asian American filmmakers to become filmmakers.  Ebert’s support of the film jump started that movie and Lin’s career as a filmmaker (he’s now about to release “Fast & Furious 6”). Just saying.

Michele Robertson, MRC Michele Robertson Company:

My first time really meeting Mr. Ebert was many years ago at a film festival. The festival controlled the door, I was there for lack of better words to welcome the press that were there. It was a hot ticket, many key critics were there — Mr. Ebert being there on the early side and toward the front of the line. Long story short and some mishaps later by the festival, a lot of folks who should have didn’t get in — including all critics. Mr. Ebert set the tone how others responded, no yelling, no pointing fingers, but rightly frustrated. By the time all was said and done, we ended up going to dinner while our PR team scrambled to put on another screening for the 30-plus folks that were turned away. I’ve been in some “challenging” situations like this before, where said publicist gets the brunt of someone’s frustration. Not him. He was a gentleman and a class act throughout. Over the years, when I’d see him, he thanked me again and I him. After his operation, I would see him at festivals – going to films with the same passion and enthusiasm that was the trademark of his career. I truly found him to be a warm and gracious man.

Sophie Gluck, Gluck PR:

I met Roger for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988 or 1989 when I worked for the late Renee Furst. Renee always praised his virtues as a film critic and instructed me to read his reviews and listen to what he had to say. In the years that followed, whether in Cannes or Toronto, I could always count on seeing Roger on line to get into a press screening, and not necessarily for the most “anticipated” film, but for a subtitled, under the radar foreign film, which could possibly become a discovery. In our festival interactions, I could also count on him to be a gentle human being. He always showed curiosity and knowledge, and when seeking films off the beaten path, he shared his discoveries with generosity, enthusiasm, and grace.

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