Opening jitters

Opening jitters

Chaz Ebert indicates nervousness about continuing her late husband's legacy

URBANA — Chaz Ebert seldom feels nervous.

But after leaving her home in Chicago on Tuesday to head to Champaign-Urbana, she felt so nervous she turned around and went home.

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"Thank God, the nervousness has subsided," she told guests at the Roger Ebert Film Festival reception Wednesday evening at the home of University of Illinois President Bob Easter and his wife, Cheryl.

"I don't feel sick any more. I've healed. It's time for us to go to the movies. As Roger would say, 'See you at the movies.'"

Later, she told The News-Gazette she didn't know what happened to her Tuesday.

A former trial lawyer and now publisher of Ebert Digital and president of Ebert Productions, she's used to speaking in public.

She didn't feel anxious before last year's Ebertfest.

"I think last year when we came, we were all stunned because it was so recent after Roger's passing," she said.

This year it hit her that she and others connected with Ebertfest, a special event of the UI College of Media, are in charge of the late critic's legacy and continuing the festival.

Before coming here this week, she said she realized she would be gauging the interest in the Champaign-Urbana community as well as the wider community in keeping the festival going. However, she indicated she doesn't really need to worry in at least one respect:

"This year is unbelievable. It's incredible. We could not believe our lineup and all the people coming and supporting us."

Among the bigger names at the reception were comedian-actor Patton Oswalt; actress Brie Larson; Ann Hui, Hong Kong's leading director; director Jem Cohen; director Haifaa Al-Mansour; and Steve James, who directed "Life Itself," the documentary about Roger Ebert that opened the 16th annual festival at the Virginia Theatre shortly after the reception.

Also coming to the festival but not yet arrived are famed directors Spike Lee and Oliver Stone. And perennial Ebertfest guest Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, will return.

Other people, some of whom work in the film industry or write about films, also have come back.

Of course, one person could not be here, and he's probably miffed about it, said UI President Bob Easter and College of Media Dean Jan Slater.

Said Easter: "I don't think for any of us the time has erased the sadness we feel about Roger not being with us. It helps that his family, friends and followers are continuing his legacy and his devotion to film, his alma mater and to his hometown" of Urbana.

While alive, Easter noted, Ebert redefined film criticism, inspired generations of journalists and "truly brought joy to millions."

UI Chancellor Phyllis Wise said though Ebert is not with us physically "he's certainly spiritually with us."

Wise also said that during the five days of Ebertfest, Champaign, Urbana and the UI become the center of the world for film.

Slater said C-U will continue to be the home of Ebertfest. With the establishment in the College of Media of the Roger Ebert Program for Film Studies, the college is poised to bring together the principles of journalism, art and film in a way that no other university does, she said.

Also taking the podium right before Chaz Ebert was Ebertfest director Nate Kohn, who seemed to speak more directly to festival sponsors and potential donors.

"We're here to ask for your help in making this festival continue and to recognize the sponsors, many of whom have been here for many, many years," he said.

Kohn went on to identify sponsors who have given more than $10,000 to Ebertfest, either in donations or in kind, among them the Champaign County Alliance for Acceptance, Inclusion and Respect, formerly called the Champaign County Anti-Stigma Alliance; Steak 'n Shake, which was Roger Ebert's favorite restaurant; Ebert's lifelong friend Betsy Hendrick; The News-Gazette and publisher John Foreman; L.A. Catering: and Laurel Leone and Steve Bellamy of Leone Advertising, who created and maintain the Ebertfest website.

Chaz Ebert said one reason she wants to continue Ebertfest is she knows how important it was to her husband, who died last year and once compared the festival to a toy train a boy receives at Christmas.

She said someone who had interviewed her recently asked how Ebertfest was able to land the directors and other guests this year.

"Well, we invited them," she replied.

But she said their agreeing to come is a tribute to Roger Ebert, and that the festival wouldn't be continuing without him and his currency of 46 years as a film critic.

"This is a crucial year for the festival, for the continuance of the festival," she said.