The scoop on Ebertfest

The scoop on Ebertfest

You might not know that the 19th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival, or any other of the Ebertfests, wouldn't have happened without Cyberfest.

Cyberfest was a University of Illinois technology and arts festival 20 years ago that celebrated the birthday in Urbana of the fictional artificial intelligence character HAL 9000 in the movie and book "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Roger Ebert hosted the Cyberfest screening of the movie at the Virginia Theatre and interviewed by satellite author Arthur C. Clarke. The famed critic was so taken with the experience that he agreed to host the new Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival — after having turned down requests to host a film festival.

Ebert died four years ago, at age 70, but his namesake festival goes on, in his spirit. The 19th runs from April 19-23 at the Virginia Theatre and nearby Hyatt Place, where the academic panel discussions will take place for the first time.

Here are 14 other things you might not know about Ebertfest, one of the most anticipated entertainment events in C-U:

Picking flicks

The biggest question festival associate director Casey Ludwig gets: Who picks the films? Roger Ebert used to, with input from his wife, Chaz, and festival director Nate Kohn. Now Chaz, who is festival executive producer and emcee, and Kohn select the films each year, drawing from lists of those the late movie critic had wanted to show or loved, and choosing newer movies they think he would have appreciated. Filmmakers cannot submit their movies for showing at Ebertfest.

Urbana duo

Roger Ebert and Nate Kohn both grew up in Urbana, about four blocks from each other, but never really knew each other until much later. Each graduated from Urbana High School — Roger was a few years ahead — and both received degrees from the UI College of Media. A professor at the University of Georgia, Kohn teaches screenwriting, producing for film and television, and qualitative methods. He directs the Cannes Film Festival Study Abroad Program, associate directs The Peabody Awards and produces film and TV programs. For 15 years, he worked as a writer and producer of independent feature films and television programs in Europe, Africa and Hollywood. Most notable producing credit: "Zulu Dawn," starring Burt Lancaster and Peter O'Toole. He has been with the festival since its inception.

Not about business

Unlike many film festivals, particularly well-known ones such as Cannes and Sundance, Ebertfest is not a marketplace in which distributors look for new films to buy. "It's a celebration of film, not necessarily business," Ludwig said. "We give press access, but we don't arrange meetings." That's why there are no scheduled news conferences with the more famous Ebertfest guests. We reporters have to catch them when we can.

Star interviews

However, Shatterglass Studios in Champaign formally interviews Ebertfest guests backstage at the Virginia after their movies are shown. Shatterglass incorporates the interviews into the video documentary it makes about each Ebertfest. The short documentaries are released after each festival, and the one from the year before is usually screened at the following year'sl. The Shatterglass representatives ask guests a variety of questions; one they always ask is how Roger Ebert — the first film critic to win a Pulitzer Prize — influenced their careers. Shatterglass won a regional Emmy Award for its 2012 Ebertfest documentary.

It's a snap

Ebertfest each year hires a photographer from Getty Images to take "step-and-repeat" photographs of the guests in front of a backdrop, also backstage. On the backdrop are the College of Media and Ebertfest logos. "We try to take pictures of all the guests backstage," Ludwig said. In the Virginia auditorium, local photographer Lou McClellan, working for Ebertfest, takes many photographs of the festival, festival-goers and guests when on stage.

Parting gifts

Each Ebertfest guest receives a Golden Thumb, a sort of trophy made from a cast of Roger Ebert's thumb in his famed thumb-up position. "We estimate how many guests we're going to have for the year, and we always make sure we have enough," Ludwig said. Most guests seem delighted to receive Roger's thumb. In the past, the same company that made the Oscar statuettes made the Golden Thumb trophies as well.

Souvenir central

Festival merchandise is sold in the Virginia's east lobby, which is also an information area and a place to buy coffee. The merchandise includes the festival T-shirt, mug and other items and books written by Roger Ebert and occasionally books written by festival guests. The Cambridge, Mass.-based Alloy Orchestra, who accompanies the silent film almost every year, sets up shop for a day in the lobby, too, selling its DVDs. Ludwig receives requests from others to sell their books or merchandise in the lobby during the festival but is unable to accommodate them because the space is limited.

Snack time

In recent years, food trucks and vendors stop in the plaza in front of the Virginia, allowing festival-goers to get a quick snack between screenings. This year, those will be Betsy's Bistro, Charity's Catering, and the Caribbean Grill. New this year, Big Grove Tavern, a festival sponsor, will provide at the Virginia concession stand their popcorn seasonings — just for Ebertfest, Ludwig said.

Stars must eat

Many people who don't attend Ebertfest are curious about where the more well-known guests eat in downtown Champaign. Wherever they want. Some of the guests research C-U restaurants before they arrive and ask their hosts to take them there. At the 2015 Ebertfest, actor Jason Segel ate at least twice at Pekara in downtown Champaign. This year, for the first time, Ebertfest will display a poster listing restaurants that sponsor the festival. "These people support us so we help support them. We try to cross-promote," Ludwig said.

On top of his craft

The man behind the curtain — we're not talking about the big red-velvet curtain over the Virginia stage — is James Bond, a projectionist from Chicago. Roger Ebert always called him the best movie projectionist in the world. Each year, Bond brings two helpers with him to Ebertfest, where they screen 12 or so films. Bond has his own theater in downtown Chicago and installs state-of-the-art projection systems in others. When he was 19, he rebuilt a 1930s 35mm film project for the Maryville Academy orphanage in Des Plaines.

Key players

No way can Ebertfest operate on festival-pass and ticket revenue alone. "We have a lot of sponsors," Ludwig said. "Quite honestly, the festival would not be possible without the sponsors, at least to the degree it currently exists. So they're critical." There are more than 100 sponsors who give varying amounts of money or in-kind services. The cash donations range from $250 to more than $25,000. Depending on their level of giving, the sponsors' names and logos are displayed on the Virginia screen between screenings and in ads in the festival programs.

Best seat in the house

Some Ebertfest attendees have requested reserved seating in the Virginia, but that likely will not happen because of festival logistics. However, on the lower level there is a section of seats reserved for VIP pass-holders, and some of those are reserved for UI leaders such as the president and chancellor. In the back of the VIP section is a leather lounge chair donated by Carter's Furniture. Roger Ebert first used it, and after he passed in 2013, Chaz Ebert gets that chair. I'm probably not the only festival-goer who covets that comfy seat!

Behind the wheel

Almost every guest who comes to Ebertfest is greeted at the airport by a volunteer host who drives the guest or guests to the Virginia, their hotel or wherever they want to go. "A lot of them have been doing it a very long time," Ludwig said. "They just have tribal knowledge that's super helpful. This is only my second year with the festival, and there's been only one addition of a host since I've come on board." She estimates the number of hosts at 25.

Willing to help

The festival cannot operate without volunteers who hand out programs, usher, keep people in line outside the theater, check bags, etc. There are more than 100, and 50 to 60 work each screening, but the festival can get by with 40. "People ask, 'How many volunteers do you need?' I say, 'As many as we can get,'" Ludwig said. "A lot of people will do more than one shift. We have longtime volunteers who are there for every movie. They're there before I get there and when I leave." Ludwig recruits some volunteers; all Ebertfest volunteers must go through the theater's regular volunteer orientation program.

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