CHAMPAIGN — It’s two hours before Day 2 of Ebertfest resumes. Already, 40 festival passholders stand or sit under the Virginia Theatre marquee, waiting for the theater to open — despite the rain and gray sky.
Another 30 or 40 wait in a line that wraps around the northeast corner of the Virginia building. Most of them are under umbrellas.
But the mood is mostly upbeat.
“You run into the same people year in and year out. And you meet new people in line. It’s just part of the festival experience,” said Monica Schmidt of Iowa City, who sat in a lawn chair under the marquee, next to her fiance, Bill Pitcher, also of Iowa City.
The pass holders show up early, maybe two or three hours before the doors open an hour before the first movie starts. They want to grab their favorite seats, often ones they sit in year after year.
This is the fourth year that Schmidt and Pitcher have attended Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, a special event of the University of Illinois College of Media.
She’s an alcohol and drug abuse counselor. He’s a software engineer. While waiting on Thursday morning, each was working on their laptop. She was checking Facebook and Twitter; Schmidt was working on games.
Michael McKelvey, who works in information technology at the UI, also was under the marquee, out of the rain, on Thursday. His wife, Elissa, was next to him.
He also mentioned the communal aspect of the wait as well as of the five-day festival itself, which opened Wednesday evening with Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven,” with cinematographer Haskell Wexler on stage. Grace Wang’s short, “I Remember,” also was shown as part of a surprise that Roger had planned.
McKelvey noted the 15th annual festival also has been a memorial to Roger Ebert, who died April 4, and his been a “very positive experience.”
Said his wife, Elissa:
“Everybody loves him so it’s sad to be without him but yet it’s still a celebration of him and what he meant and what he did for artists as well as the common fan.”
“Probably the best way to celebrate is to get together with everybody who cared about him and appreciated what he did,” Michael McKelvey said.
“We hope it continues for many years,” he added.
So does Norma Marder, a writer who lives in Champaign. But she wants to see a presiding spirit, another critic, take Roger Ebert’s place.
“Absence is heavy, and I feel the weight of absence,” she said while waiting in line Thursday morning outside the theater.
Chaz Ebert has called the festival a celebration of her late husband and that’s appropriate, but his absence is palpable, Marder said.
And she said she does not feel the late critic’s spiritual presence.
“You cannot have a festival as a museum piece, presided over by a ghost. We need a new presiding spirit — a reviewer, a powerful reviewer,” she said.
A new person would be different, but would have to tell his own story, much as the late Ebert did, said Marder, quoting her husband, Herbert, also a writer who waited in line with her.
Norma Marder suggested that the Ebertfest audience “audition” people.
“As much as we love Roger, we need somebody else to take over,” she said.
The two have attended the past 13 festivals in their entirety, and the first two, intermittently, she said.