Ebertfest notebook, Day 3: 'Movie Mom' loves camaraderie

Ebertfest notebook, Day 3: 'Movie Mom' loves camaraderie

Her favorite thing about event? Lack of competition

Nell Minow has always been interested in movies. And as the mother of two children, she always felt like helping families have conversations about difficult subjects.

Back in 1995, she combined her two interests by starting the Movie Mom website — when there were only a few hundred websites in existence, most of them started by corporations or the government.

She taught herself HTML — hyper text markup language — and maintained the website herself for four years. Then Yahoo hired her as a critic and her site was redesigned. Movie Mom eventually moved to Beliefnet.com, an online resource for faith, belief and spirituality.

The site gets 150,000 to 200,000 hits a month.

Minow, a guest of Roger Ebert's Film Festival, also reaches 8 million listeners via radio stations nationwide and in Canada, talking about new movies. She also has written numerous movie articles and Movie Mom guidebooks.

This is her third year at Ebertfest, where she handled the onstage Q-and-A after "Short Term 12" was shown Thursday afternoon. That movie made her Top 10 list last year. As for Ebertfest, she "absolutely" loves it.

"What I love most about it is there is no intense air of competition. Everybody watches the same movies together and talks about them afterward," she said Friday between screenings.

Older folks might recognize Minow's last name. Her father, Newton N. Minow, was the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission when he spoke at the 1961 National Association of Broadcasters convention and famously described American commercial TV programming as a "vast wasteland."

I asked Nell Minow whether her father, now 88, still feels the same.

He has a Dickensian view of TV, his daughter said, feeling television programming is the best it's ever been and the worst it's ever been. She said he loves series like "Mad Men," "The Sopranos" and "House of Cards."

"He's a passionate fan of television and a big fan of public television. He loves 'Downton Abbey,'" she said.

He lives in Chicago, where Nell grew up. She now lives in Washington, D.C.

Remembering Ebert

Sam Fragoso, a 19-year-old freshman at San Francisco State University, said the Ebertfest "Remembering Ebert" panel discussion Friday morning at the Illini Union was a wake of sorts.

"People shared stories. There were tears and laughter and stories about what Roger's done for us," he said.

The panel was moderated by Omer Mozaffar, who lives in Chicago and is one of the late Roger Ebert's many "Far-Flung Correspondents." Most are young writers from around the world who write about movies. He featured their reviews on his website, and many of them attend Ebertfest each year.

During the Q-and-A after the panel discussion, other people talked about Roger Ebert and how they connected to him. "That was the recurring theme, how he connected to people so well," Fragoso said.

Fragoso, who's from Chicago, writes about the movies for rogerebert.com and other online sites, including a few based in San Francisco. He wants to continue to write film criticism but said it's difficult to make a living doing that.

"Film criticism is a dying art," he said. "Depending on how you want to live, if you want a family, you need multiple jobs and need to run a site. You have to write books."

Print film criticism, he noted, is in even worse shape. "Michael Phillips, The Chicago Tribune film critic, is one of only a handful of full-time print critics. It's a luxury papers can't afford anymore," Fragoso said.

(Phillips also attends Ebertfest regularly and is back again this year.)

Fragoso came to Ebertfest 2014 with his father, Michael, an eighth-grade science teacher in Chicago. Attending the festival together is a good father-son bonding experience, the two said.

My connection

On Friday afternoon I was standing outside the Virginia Theatre, enjoying the sun, when I heard a man on his cellphone asking for Melissa Merli.

I approached and told him that's me. As he turned around to face me I recognized Bernard Schoenburg, a Daily Illini co-worker of mine back in the '70s.

He's now a political writer and columnist at The State Journal-Register in Springfield.

He is attending Ebertfest for the first time; he and his wife, Kim, plan to see all 12 movies. So far his favorite is "Short Term 12," about young counselors and their teen charges at a center for foster kids. He called it "completely and totally perfect in its delivery." (It's my favorite so far, too.)

He also enjoyed "Museum Hours," shot in Vienna, Austria. His mother was born in Austria and came to the United States in 1942 as a war refugee. He said "Museum Hours," written and directed by Jem Cohen, was like a tour the city that he's not yet visited.

However, he said he might not have liked "Museum Hours" if he'd seen it on DVD or somewhere other than Ebertfest.

"I don't think I would have paid attention to it without being surrounded by people who love film," he said.

Ebertfest forever

Starting next year, Roger Ebert's Film Festival will be a program of the Roger Ebert Center for Film Studies of the University of Illinois College of Media, which was Ebert's alma mater.

"It isn't yet — we're still raising money for the program," College of Media Dean Jan Slater said Friday at the 2014 Ebertfest.

So far $2 million has been raised. Of that, $1 million came from Roger and Chaz Ebert. The other $1 million is from an anonymous donor. The film center will start programming in the fall, and the college is now actively working toward raising another $2.5 million for the center, she said.

The center's programs will reach beyond the campus, Slater said, and include things like workshops, residencies for scholars and screenwriters, panel discussions and screenings.

"The center will focus on commentary and criticism and genres, and all the things that made Roger fabulous, all the things he loved about film," Slater said.

The College of Media and Chaz Ebert are committed to keeping Ebertfest, now in its 16th year, going, Slater said.

"The college is committed to Ebertfest," Slater said. "This is Roger's legacy. He had some ideas of things he wanted, and we want to keep it going."

Thinking molecules

One event Chaz Ebert has plugged from the Virginia Theatre podium during Ebertfest will take place at another theater — the Art Theater Co-op, just a couple of blocks north of the Virginia.

At 3:30 p.m. Sunday, the last day of Ebertfest, the Art Theater Co-op will offer a free screening and the world premiere of "The Thinking Molecules of Titan," a short film based on an unfinished short story by Roger Ebert.

He had started the story during his final days in the hospital, where he died on April 4, 2013.

"The story was a throwback to tales that he wrote and read as a younger man, but unfortunately, he was never able to finish it," reads a blurb about the short film, posted on the Art Theater website.

In June 2013, Chaz Ebert posted the unfinished story on her blog. She included a contest to finish her late husband's story.

The entries were posted on Chaz Ebert's blog along with original artwork by Krishna Bala Shenoi, one of her late husband's "Far-Flung Correspondents."

Local filmmaker Andrew Stengele, an official videographer for Ebertfest, took a different tack. He decided to turn the unfinished story into a short film. Patrick Wang, whose movie "In the Family" was a hit at the 2013 Ebertfest, helped finish the story. It recently was shot in Champaign-Urbana by a local crew, with Stengele as director.

Three more thoughts

Patton Oswalt has to be one of the most entertaining Ebertfest guests ever. The actor-comedian who came with "Young Adult," in which he does an excellent acting job, by the way, cracked jokes nearly every five seconds during the post-screening discussion moderated by Susan Wloszczyna and Steve Prokopy. Oswalt owned it. Give him the mike and just let him go.

You know how the lion inside a movie-studio logo in the beginning credits roars? Well, the lion in the opening credits of the silent-film classic "He Who Gets Slapped" — MGM's first full-length release — looked this way and that, as if lost. No roars. The audience laughed. The Alloy Orchestra performed, once again, an excellent score composed by the trio for the 1924 Lon Chaney flick.

People having their picture taken with the new life-size bronze sculpture of Roger Ebert outside the Virginia Theatre have been respectful, said Scott Anderson, who spearheaded the fundraising for the piece. After it was temporarily installed at noon Thursday, $1,201 in cash donations were dropped into the nearby collection box that day; Anderson needs $16,000 more to finish paying for the project.