Ebertfest official friendly, helpful – and gets the job done

Ebertfest official friendly, helpful – and gets the job done

URBANA – Every year from mid-January to late April, Mary Susan Britt's life revolves around Roger Ebert's Film Festival.

Her husband, Tad, and their daughter, Grace, have come to accept that.

"Everything in our home now is 'After Ebertfest,'" Britt said on Tuesday. "It's so funny. It's kind of a running theme: 'After Ebertfest. After Ebertfest.'"

Associate director of the festival, Britt takes charge of myriad logistical details, chief among them making sure the 50 or so festival guests arrive and leave on time, have hotel rooms and have hosts to squire them around.

In the days approaching the festival, which runs from Wednesday through next Sunday at Champaign's Virginia Theatre and on the University of Illinois campus, Britt's life moves at a frenzied pace.

She arrives as early as 5 a.m. and stays late at her office at Gregory Hall on the Illinois campus – even on weekends.

She's on the telephone at least five times a day with festival director Nate Kohn and as many times with Donna Anderson of Suzi Davis Travel, who is finalizing the itineraries of some of the guests.

"As nearly as I can tell, Mary Susan is always on the job," Ebert said via e-mail. "An e-mail to her gets a quick reply about 22 hours a day.

"She has the hardest job with the festival. Mine is a breeze. Nate's is tough. Hers is superhuman. She's on top of countless details. And yet she's always so calm and cheerful. I don't know how she does it."

Ebert said festival guests have constantly told him how friendly and helpful Britt has been to them.

"For them, she's the smiling face and voice of the university and the community."

Avoids limelight

At each Ebertfest, Britt's name elicits the loudest applause when the behind-the-scene festival organizers are announced from the stage.

Britt downplays that. She said it happens only because she has been in contact with so many of the people in the audience.

She always tries to avoid the festival limelight.

"She is so self-deprecating, almost shuns accolades," said Laurel Leone of Leone Advertising, which is charge of the Ebertfest Web site.

Leone, who grows more appreciative each year of Britt's "indispensable and critical role" in making the festival happen, said someone like Britt is usually behind every great event.

Actually, there are usually more.

"She does the job that in a normal film festival would be divided among four or five people," Kohn said.

A long list

Leone noted that Britt's name, telephone number and e-mail address are listed as the first point of contact on the Ebertfest Web site.

Leone also provided a list of Britt's duties; one of the most challenging is to accommodate the guests' "very hectic, changing and conflicting schedules."

Among her tasks:

– Contacting the guests before the festival to obtain their biographies and head shots for the festival program and Web site (http://www.ebertfest.com). Leone said that sometimes requires numerous phone calls and e-mails.

– Coordinating with TicketWeb and the Virginia Theatre the sale of festival passes and hundreds of tickets to individual screenings.

– Coordinating with graphic designer Carlton Bruett the "look" of the festival, including passes, advertisements and merchandise.

– Soliciting, confirming and collecting donations from and regularly communicating with more than 100 festival sponsors.

– Coordinating and ensuring the delivery of "promised benefits" to the sponsors. Each of the 10 different levels of sponsorship has its own mix of perks.

– Finding and coordinating dozens of volunteers. Britt arranged for a recent "mass training" of volunteers, led by Virginia Theatre staff. The volunteers help with ushering, concessions, registration, check-in, crowd control and the sale of festival merchandise.

– Making sure there are enough volunteers to run errands, distribute posters, stuff envelopes and carry out all the other tasks.

"What she doesn't get help with she does herself," Leone said.

– Maintaining, year-round, an ever-growing e-mail list of festival "friends" and sending them regular updates.

– Coordinating all the festival events, including ordering and arranging the delivery of beverages, tents and catered food, including for VIP guests.

– Managing media communications and requests. A recent one came from a journalist in Brazil who wants to interview Ebert.

Special requests

Every year Britt has to take care of out-of-the-ordinary requests from some guests, too. Among those this year was finding a translator for Yojiro Takita, director of "Departures," to be shown on Friday.

A UI postdoctoral student answered Britt's call for translators and was accepted after being interviewed via telephone by one of Takita's reps.

For Ebert this year, Britt arranged for the delivery from Chicago of a Relax-the-Back chair for him to sit in while he is on stage, using his computer and text-to-voice software.

Britt also arranged for a recliner, from Carter's Furniture in Urbana, for the back of the theater, where Ebert, as the festival's benevolent overlord, is ensconced during the dozen or so screenings.

'Absolutely fabulous'

Kit Donahue, production director for Illini Media, which is in charge of the festival program and the PowerPoint presentations between movies, works closely with Britt and calls her "absolutely fabulous" to work with.

"She's so appreciative of what anybody does to help her put this festival together," Donahue said.

She believes Britt's name draws hearty applause from the Ebertfest audience because she's so likable.

"She's very personable, funny. She's one of those people you feel you know when you meet her," Donahue said. "She's very friendly. You feel at ease with her right away."

Donahue thinks Britt's Southern accent helps in that regard.

Britt grew up in New Madrid, a small town in southeast Missouri, and honed her honeyed dialect while working on bachelor's and master's degrees in sociology at the University of Mississippi, where she met Tad Britt, now an archaeologist.

He often travels for his job, so when Ebertfest rolls around the Britts depend on friend Jacki Buckingham, a former day care provider, to watch Grace, now a fourth-grader.

"She picks up Grace. She takes care of everything," Britt said. "She takes Grace to ball practice, helps her with her homework, feeds her."

Festival fun

In addition to being associate director of Ebertfest, a special event of the UI College of Media, Britt works as associate director for advancement for the college.

Her office there is full of Ebertfest materials. A large poster from the eighth festival, showing a dapper Ebert with thumbs up, is posted on a wall. A tote bag from the 10th festival perches on her work space.

Spread out nearby are orange, blue and red folders filled with guest itineraries, to-do lists, bills, volunteer applications, sponsorship information, and other festival business. Near those is a stack of 2010 laminated festival passes.

Several boxes of books by Ebert, among them "Scorsese by Ebert," wait on the floor of Britt's office. Donated by the publishers, the books are inserted into gift bags that festival guests find in their hotel rooms.

Loves the job

Britt, who's 43, had never expected that she would one day help organize and run a film festival.

She said she genuinely loves the job.

"What I like most, No. 1, is working with Roger and Chaz (Ebert) and Nate," she said. "The best part is seeing it all come together at the beginning of the festival and meeting the festival guests after months of correspondence back and forth."

Last year she especially enjoyed greeting Urbana natives Carl Deal Jr. and Nina Paley because they were so appreciative about being invited to show their films before a hometown audience.

Britt has enjoyed meeting bigger names, too, among them actors Matt Dillon, John Malkovich and, at her first Ebertfest, Kris Kristofferson.

Year-round job

To help make the festival happen, Britt spends time on the event pretty much year-round. In January she starts e-mailing and telephoning guests after they are first invited by Kohn. Earlier, in September and October, she starts nailing down sponsors.

Britt already is working on next years's festival. She's set the dates and venues – mainly the Virginia and Illini Union – and has prepared the grant applications.

So does it get easier for her every year?

Britt laughs.

"I don't know how to answer that. I know how to do it now. You just find quicker ways to get things done.

"So many people in this community help me in one way or another."

While most of her prep work is over by now, Britt will remain inordinately busy during the festival. She likely won't be able to sit and watch a movie until Saturday.

"Pretty much my phone is ringing all the time," she said. "I definitely get to watch the Sunday film. It's very calming because it's the last one of the festival. All the guests have arrived and some have left, though a few leave town that Monday."

And then Britt can take a deep breath and start all over again.