Two unsung heroes behind Ebertfest

Two unsung heroes behind Ebertfest

My Ebertfest glow has pretty much dissipated, even though I found this year’s festival the most inspiring yet.

The documentary "A Small Act" made me want to commit small acts of kindness, and the doc "Louder Than a Bomb" inspired me to do something big for others.

Who knows what kind of seeds those as well as the 11 other movies planted in festival-goers’ philanthropy-oriented brain cells?

The night Ebertfest ended a group of us met at Crane Alley to discuss the movies. Some of my friends saw overall themes such as subterfuge running through the lineup, but I would guess that subterfuge is a theme in many movies. It’s a good way to establish suspense.

As we yakked on that night my eyes for some reason were drawn to one of the flat-screen TVs on the walls. "Osama bin Laden is dead," I cried out, adding, in my characteristic way of understating things, "That’s big news."

The news flash unctured our movie-centric conversation.

But back to Ebertfest anyway.

At this year’s I heard for the first time about two unsung heroes behind the film festival: projectionist James Bond and Laurel Leone, whose Leone Advertising in Menlo Park, Calif., built and maintains the Ebertfest website — for free.

Ebert said the two do those jobs for love.

"There is no way Ebertfest could afford to pay them their standard fees. No way," he told me via email. "The festival should cost twice as much as it does. All of our friends and volunteers make it possible. I loved it when a director observed this year he’d never seen a better-projected film

than at Ebertfest."

Besides being one of the best projectionists in the world, Bond puts "a good portion" of his Ebertfest pay back into the Virginia Theatre projection booth, which, thanks to him and others, is state-of-the-art.

"There’s so much detail that goes into putting on a film festival," Bond said. "I’m just trying to make it easier for the next year, so the quality can increase slowly, year after year."

Bond said the most important aspect of projection (now that it’s mostly digital — only three of the 13 Ebertfest movies this year were NOT digitally projected) is the setup of the projection system.

"This year we did a lot of fine-tuning on Wednesday," he said of the festival’s opening day.

In fact, he said he and Steve Krauss, also a projectionist from Chicago, spent 16 hours fine-tuning the system. Bond seemed especially proud of the sound quality. He said the audio system at the Virginia was "primitive" before he began working Ebertfest.

Bond didn’t credit himself for the improved sound, though. He said the Champaign Park District, which owns the vintage vaudeville theater, had been upgrading the system before he became involved in Ebertfest,

And, in the past two or three years, Bond and his colleagues in projection booths everywhere have embraced the dramatic evolution in digital-sound technology. It’s helped at Ebertfest: Making the audio sound great in a large room like the 1,523-seat Virginia is "incredibly tricky," said Bond, who acts as a consultant to architects who design movie theaters.

And even with digital equipment it’s easy to do the setup wrong, leading to poor quality of sound and images on screen, he said.

"That’s what we’re seeing at the multi-plexes," he said.

Multiplex owners are dumbing down projection systems now so that "anyone" can do it. Bond and other projectionists use the term "manjectionist" to refer to a theater manager or concessions manager acting as movie projectionist.

"A lot of skill sets specific to film are slipping away," he said. "People who enable that technology or showmanship are vanishing."

Bond said most film festivals now screen digitally. It would be technically correct to call Ebertfest Roger Ebert’s Video Festival. But that doesn’t have the same, nice ring as does Roger’s Ebert Film Festival.

I look forward at each Ebertfest to seeing Laurel Leone, a tall, slim woman from California with a pleasant demeanor who with her husband, Steve Bellamy, built and maintains on a pro bono basis.

She’s been doing that since 2006. After attending the festival for the first time the year before, as a sponsor, Leone contacted associate festival director Mary Susan Britt with her ideas for the festival website.

"She was receptive, so we went ahead and developed a new website," Leone said of her firm, Leone Advertising, in Menlo Park, Calif. is the only pro bono project for Leone Advertising, which Leone founded in 1993.

"We felt really acknowledged this year when Chaz thanked us on stage, saying that the newly designed website brought us from good to great, adding that she knew how much websites like this cost from

her experience with ‘Ebert Presents’," Leone said, referring to the new TV movie-review show being produced by the Eberts.

Leone Advertising took on the project because Leone is "basically a Roger Ebert groupie.

"I’ve had a life-long love of film and became a fan of Roger Ebert starting way back in 1978 when ‘Sneak Previews’ was first broadcast on our local San Francisco PBS station," she said. "He was and still is my favorite film reviewer, in fact the only one whose opinion I am regularly influenced by — I would pretty much see any movie Roger gave four stars to, without reservation.

"And I have more admiration for him than ever, especially for his insightful blog entries, and the new voice he has found since he lost his speaking voice."

Besides being "thrilled" to work with Ebertfest, Leone said she, her husband and their son, Nico Bellamy, an aspiring filmmaker, have made at the event many new friends from Champaign-Urbana but worldwide — and several from the San Francisco Bay Area whom they first met at Ebertfest.

"Ebertfest is without a doubt my favorite event of the year," Leone said.


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