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‘Roger’s seals of approval validated the work we were doing’: The Film Festival Community Remembers Roger Ebert

'Roger's seals of approval validated the work we were doing': The Film Festival Community Remembers Roger Ebert

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

Gary Meyer, Telluride Film Festival

In 1978 Landmark took over an old theater in Chicago, the Parkway, to show daily changing double features. We needed to get publicity but the switchboard at both the Tribune and Sun Times refused to put me through to their film critics, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert respectively. I went to the Sun Times where the receptionist would not call up to Roger or give me any tips on how to make an appointment. I went outside and waited until she went on a break, leaving the lobby unattended. It was my chance to slip in and take the elevator to any floor, asking where Mr. Ebert’s desk was. I was told to go up another floor and there was pointed in his direction. As I approached his desk Roger was engaged in a phone call but his eyes lit up, he pulled a chair over and motioned for me to sit down. Shortly we were in a lively conversation where his genuine enthusiasm was what people encountered while with him. As we were finishing he asked, “Have you seen Gene yet?” I told him of the barriers similar to getting to him. “Hold on,” he said, picking up the phone, “Gene, there is a young man in my office you have to meet. When can he come over?”

He didn’t tell Gene why, wanting it to be a surprise. This was the kind of generosity that was second nature to Roger.

Whenever I came to Chicago there was an open invitation to join them for tapings of “Sneak Previews.” They would warm up for their discussions about movies by bickering, making snide comments and ultimately breaking into laughter. The first time I saw this made me a little uncomfortable until I realized it was part of their mutual admiration or, dare I say, love for each other. I don’t remember if I ever saw any session quite as R rated as these but you’ll get the idea.

“Sneak Previews” became incredibly important for small films, including foreign, independent and documentary. Both Roger and Gene had mixed feelings that a thumbs up or down could be short-hand for their reviews but they encouraged viewers to read, think and discuss movies. This was before the internet so most people outside of Chicago could not read their actual, long and thoughtful opinions in print, though many libraries started subscribing to their papers because of the demand.

I will never forget that theaters were showing Louis Malle’s “My Dinner With Andre” to small audiences who loved it but it was going to be hard to justify holding much longer. And then one weekend came the raves on “Sneak Previews” and the movie was suddenly selling out, playing for months. Their impact was felt on many other films and I especially remember it for “Hoop Dreams” and “The Return of the Secaucas 7.”

There are so many memories and stories; briefly, they include: Roger calling ahead before a visit to San Francisco asking where he and Gene should eat and inviting me to join them for a dinner; the three of us falling asleep together at a screening in Cannes and later joking about this occupational hazard; Roger’s passionate discussions (informed by Marhsall McLuhan) about watching film being active versus video being passive; his embracing technology at an early Salon.com conference where Roger’s ideas about the possibilities were far ahead of his Silicon Valley co-panelists; our frequent conversations about his passionate and well-thought arguments with Jack Valenti regarding the need for the MPAA rating system to be overhauled; his spontaneous dueling Yeats session when interviewing Peter O’Toole at Telluride; the smile on Roger’s face when you would see him at a festival and then after he lost his jaw and ability to speak the twinkle in his eyes as you came into a screening where he sat, as if waiting for our arrival.

A few years ago we visited their home where Roger was surrounded by memorabilia, books and memories. It was like a museum. But there were two important things he wanted to show off. A type-to-voice computer program he and his visiting expert from Scotland were trying to perfect where thousands of hours of his voice from speeches, radio and TV could be searched to put together the sentences he was typing. The challenge was that many recording were created in different settings making it hard to conform to the sound of the new speeches. It was amazing nonetheless and had progressed a lot since his demonstration on “Oprah.” He also was proud of his first ever cookbook, “The Pot and How to Use It,” despite his inability to eat food anymore. He may have missed eating but that wasn’t going to stop him from insisting that Chaz, my wife Cathy and I go out for burgers at one of their favorite joints.

A few days before Roger’s untimely departure, we were watching Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” at SFMOMA. I kept thinking how much fun it would have been to have experienced it with Chaz and Roger, marveling at the images from favorite and esoteric movies so beautifully edited with its surprising sound mix. They would have been giddy with delight.

I close these selected thoughts being reminded of the pure joy when Roger introduced people to Chaz, the first time and every time thereafter. What a pair! They made every minute count and reminded us to do the same. Lucky for us so much of Roger survives online and in print to supplement the memories. He’ll always be with us.

Next: “The last time I saw Roger he offered me a trademark thumbs up.”Sarah Eaton Sundance Film Festival:

While attending the Virginia Film Festival back in early 90s, I was lucky enough to be seated at a dinner with Roger Ebert.   As a publicist at Fine Line Features at the time I was fortunate to have worked with him on a number of films and had come to really appreciate and admire him.   In this instance, I could not resist the opportunity to ask him about the cult classic “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” a Russ Meyer film for which he wrote the screenplay.  I was fascinated that such a widely regarded  critic also had an appreciation for some really great schlock.   We spent most of the dinner talking about Russ Meyer films, which was beyond fun, and a memory I cherish.

Eugene Hernandez, Film Society of Lincoln Center:

In recent years we all discovered first hand the impact that a tweet from Roger could have on traffic. But his support was longstanding.

Roger’s public and private seals of approval validated the work that we were doing even from the earliest days. He singled out Indiewire in print in an article for Yahoo Internet Life Magazine back in the 90s. It quite literally put Indiewire on the map in a major way.

Personally speaking, I was always honored to receive Roger’s endorsement. At festivals around the world, he and Chaz were continually quick with a word of support and a nod of encouragement. They also teased me by calling saying I looked like George Lopez. The last time I saw Roger he offered me a trademark thumbs up.

Chris Horton, Sundance Artist Services:

When I attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, Ebert’s presence at the annual Conference on World Affairs was one of the biggest events of the school year. He was, for a week, the biggest celebrity on campus. A film critic! He literally walked around with an entourage, and would stop to talk to seemingly every student who approached him. His tradition at the Conference was conducting, in the largest auditorium on campus, a shot by shot analysis of a specific film. He would start the film, and anyone could shout “STOP!” if they wanted to make a comment. It took days to get through a single movie (the ones I remember: “Fargo,” “Vertigo” and “Dark City”). In the early days of DVD, the ability to quickly start and stop on a particular image was a revelation to Roger. And for a budding film geek with a gregarious streak, this was nirvana to me.

Dieter Kosslick, Berlin International Film Festival:

Thumbs up or thumbs down — this was his trademark that became known far beyond the USA, and sparked both hope and fear. Roger Ebert was not only the most important film critic of his generation, but he also succeeded in conveying his love and passion for the cinema to us all. I was very moved when Roger topped his film list for 2011 with “A Separation,” the winner of the Berlinale. Afterwards this extraordinary film won an Oscar and many other international prizes. Like always: Roger was right.

Rose Kuo, Film Society of Lincoln Center:

In the mid-eighties I landed the job as an an assistant editor on a feature film shot in Chicago. The post-production work was temporarily housed in a facility called GPI (I can’t remember what the letters stood for and a search on the internet didn’t uncover the mystery) located in the neighborhood called the Gold Coast. Shortly after arriving, I learned that the famous TV critic duo of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel screened new film releases at the same place. Sometimes the projectionist would let me slip into the booth to take a peek at what they were watching. One day, I was riding in the elevator when in stepped Roger and Gene. Roger turned and asked me what I did and after speaking to me for a little bit, he invited me to join them for their screenings. And just like that I found myself seated with them, the beneficiary of Roger’s openness and interest in sharing the thing he loved, movies. The movie? It was “9 1/2 Weeks,” which Roger liked.

Years later, after I had lost touch with him, I was attending the Telluride Film Festival.  Roger walked into a theater with Chaz and set his things down in the row of seats in front of me. He looked around the theater and paused when he saw me.  “Don’t I know you?” he asked. I told him about the Chicago screenings and he launched right into talking about films we saw as if no time had passed. His willingness to share his world never diminished. 

Brian Brooks, FilmLinc:

OK, I’m really going down memory lane here… I remember some years back, my former Indiewire colleague Eugene Hernandez and I were driving down PCH in California after attending an alterna-party for “The Hurt Locker” producer Nicolas Chartier. The backdrop was that Chartier basically ran afoul of the powers-that-be at the Academy and was banned from attending the ceremony. But he scored with someone who had this fabulous (and I do mean fabulous) house in Malibu with an Oscar-viewing party. And, of course, the film won! We had an interesting little Oscar night angle to IW’s coverage, but the wifi there sucked. We called it in to our co-worker Peter Knegt, who was — and is — a star and we managed it. It was stressful. We kind of wondered if we had messed it all up. At the time, it was never in the cards for us to go join the pack covering the Oscars backstage. No live snark, no Wireimage pics. You get the idea…

After that event, we were driving down PCH and we saw that Roger Ebert linked to our coverage. Oscar night, and Roger Ebert linked to us! That changed everything. Honestly, I had to pull over. It was so amazing. So the sob story is that we struggled for many years at Indiewire to keep it going. We didn’t know at times if we would just crash or, even worse, vanish. We certainly never got rich off of it at the end of the day, but we kept it going. We were lucky we had Roger Ebert. He was a huge figure in the world of cinema, but for us his support was personal. IW wouldn’t be what it is without him. Thumbs up dear soul. We owe you a debt of gratitude. 

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