Lining up at 7:30 a.m. for a 1 p.m. film? That's 'the power of Ebert'

Lining up at 7:30 a.m. for a 1 p.m. film? That's 'the power of Ebert'

CHAMPAIGN — This year's Roger Ebert Film Festival is the fifth since the death of the Urbana-reared film critic for whom the festival is named, though that hasn't stopped folks traveling near and far from flocking to the Virginia Theatre to be a part of the event.

Ebertfest Director Nate Kohn stayed at the downtown Hyatt Place for the first time during last year's event, and when he looked out his window at 7 one morning, he was surprised to see a line of folks around the corner from the Virginia waiting to get into a 1 p.m. showing.

"It really just shows the power of Roger Ebert and the power he continues to have in attracting audiences," Kohn said.

A similar scene played out on Thursday morning during the 19th version of Ebertfest as dozen of people stood in line around the theater, down Randolph Street and around University Avenue ahead of the 1 p.m. screening of "Hysteria."

Charleston's Bob Newell, an Ebertfest regular for more than a decade, was the first person in line, arriving at 7:30 a.m. along with a few friends.

"I don't get to see them but once a year, so it's nice to catch up with them and talk to some of the other people in line," he said.

Ebertfest has a special meaning to Newell, who teaches film and literature at Lake Land College in Mattoon. He and his wife, Jamie, had their first date at the festival in 2003.

"We saw 'Blood and Wine' with Jack Nicholson, so it's always kind of nice for us to come back here and kind of relive that," he said.

The Newells were especially looking forward to seeing "Hysteria," a film directed by Tanya Wexler.

"We knew about Maggie Gyllenhaal being in the film, and we'd heard about it beforehand," Newell said. "It just happened to be one of the films we hadn't seen this year, and it's nice to be able to catch it at Ebertfest."

Passing it on

Attending Ebertfest serves a professional purpose for Newell, too, as he takes some of the things he learns during the five-day event back to his students at Lake Land for vibrant educational discussions.

"As an educator, I can go to a lot of conferences for a lot of different things that are directly in my field of writing and literature, but nothing has been as important for me as this festival for what I've learned (during the panel discussions)," he said.

"A few years back, we watched the movie 'Kumare,' and I've shown that in class. I've shown 'Departures' in class. Usually, it has to do with the panel discussion where I end up being able to take the ideas they presented and bring those to the class and talk to them about it. Not just the film class, but the literature class, too."

Newell used to attend a handful of film festivals per year, but Ebertfest is the only one he attends regularly any more, as he doesn't have as much free time as he used to. The convenience of all the films being shown in one location adds to the draw, he said.

Looking for Lear

The festival got even more convenient this year as the panel discussions featuring actors, directors and producers have been moved from the University of Illinois Student Union to Hyatt Place, just a couple blocks from the Virginia.

"I miss the Union because of the character of the place and the history of the place," Kohn said. "But by having this panel here, we're able to seat more people, and we don't have to worry about transportation. Particularly, residents of Champaign-Urbana don't have to fight the parking problem at the Union because there's ample parking in downtown Champaign."

Downtown businesses are excited to have all the extra folks walking around visiting their establishments during the week. A block away from the Virginia, the folks at Hamilton Walker's were setting up a table on the Park Street side of its restaurant, welcoming festival-goers with a table promoting boxed lunches on Thursday afternoon.

"We're doing sandwiches because we know a lot of people see all the movies, and they go back and forth, so in between, we're going to go down there," said Brian Margulis of Hamilton Walker's. "Anything that brings people downtown is great. We're real big supporters of this. The Virginia Theatre and the film noir thing is all a part of our concept, and we can relate to that."

Among the major celebrities both Newell and Margulis are looking forward to rubbing elbows with is famed writer and producer Norman Lear.

"We're keeping our eyes out for that hat on Norman Lear that he wears all the time," Margulis said. "As soon as we see the hat, that means it's Norman Lear."

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