On with the show

On with the show

CHAMPAIGN – The sold-out Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival opens this evening at the Virginia Theatre, giving 1,500 or so moviegoers a cinematic trip through the critic's psyche.

The event that, to culture vultures, is what Dee Brown is to Illinois basketball opens with the screening of "My Fair Lady" and closes Sunday with another musical, "U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha," shot in South Africa.

In between, festivalgoers have the chance to brush up against celebrities such as two-time Oscar nominee John Malkovich, actor Scott Wilson, vocalist Marni Nixon, director Terry Zwigoff, and possibly Amy Adams, an Academy Award nominee for her turn in "Junebug," to be shown Saturday evening.

"Everybody who comes wants to be here, and the primary reason they come is Roger," said festival director Nate Kohn. "All the tickets are sold out, and the reason we sell out so quickly, before we even announce the names of the films, is that the community of people who come to see these films trusts Roger's judgment."

They also return every year to Champaign to see Ebert talk with his guests onstage. As for the audience, Kohn has encountered people from as far as Australia, Europe and Oregon. "They might be passing through," he said. "We don't track that, though, so we really have no idea."

Word of the festival has spread since it started eight years ago as a special event of the University of Illinois College of Communications. And even though it's growing in popularity and festival passes and tickets sold out early this year, Kohn doesn't foresee enlarging or expanding the event.

"Part of the beauty of the festival is that everybody sees the same film at the same time; that also fosters this community among the filmgoers," he said. "And Roger watches every film with the audience. He knows that each audience reacts differently. Roger wants to make sure he gets the sense of the audience so he can better talk about the film with the guests afterward.

"The other thing about the festival is it's a celebration of filmmaking. We give no awards. We give no prizes. There is no competition. This is not a film market. We don't sell films here. It's simply Roger's chance to show some of his favorite films to the folks who live in his hometown."

This year two of those movies – "Somebodies" and "Really, Really Bad Santa – will be projected in high-definition digital video, which required the rental of state-of-the-art digital-video projection equipment.

"It'll be an interesting experiment because the size of the screen at the Virginia is so large," Kohn said. "It'll be a real test of how far digital projection has come. We essentially spare no expense to make sure the sound and picture are of the highest technical quality."

For the screening of "My Fair Lady," Kohn had to bring from New York and Los Angeles different parts for the sound system. As for the festival itself, audience members won't see many changes other than a slight one at the free family matinee of "Millions" on Saturday. Ebert suggested that Jessica Elliott, a fifth-grader at Wiley Elementary School, Urbana, and some of her classmates be enlisted to go onstage with him to critique the movie.

No tickets are required for the family matinee, and festival assistant director Mary Susan Britt still urges people who really want to see one of the other 12 films to stand in the "rush" line, as some ticket- and pass-holders skip some of the shows.

"Definitely come 30 minutes before the film starts and take your chances," she said Tuesday. "I think we'll be able to get everyone in, especially for the afternoon movies. The evening movies might be a little tight."

Last year the Virginia Theatre made nearly $8,000 by hosting the festival, as $1 dollar from every ticket and $5 from each festival pass goes to the vintage theater's restoration fund. The festival is a nonprofit event and not a cash cow, according to Kohn and Britt.

"American Airlines is a valued sponsor but they don't fly all the routes that our guests need to fly," Kohn said. "For example, we're bringing in these people from South Africa, and it costs a lot of money. It's an expensive festival and it about breaks even every year. It didn't in the beginning."

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