By CAROL MIZRAHI
I'm glad to read that the Roger Ebert Film Festival will be returning to Champaign-Urbana in 2014, and when it does, I hope it will be more "user friendly" than in years past. By that I mean that ticket buyers will be able to purchase reserved seats. Despite the fact that the Virginia Theatre has marked rows and seat numbers and that hundreds of other performances there sell reserved seats, Ebertfest does not.
Consequently, hundreds of people — if they want a good seat — must stand in line, sometimes for hours and oftentimes in inclement weather. I remember one year in particular when heavy rains poured down on us. Pleas to open the doors early and let people in — especially the elderly — were denied. After the doors did open, and after I had secured a seat for myself, and after I had the promise of the person next to me to hold my seat, I drove home, changed out of soaking-wet clothes, and returned to the theater.
Last year's crowd was also subjected to a heavy downpour. People in line asked if they could enter the theater early. The answer was no. When asked why not, they were told that not all ushers were at the theater, and those who were there were still being trained. This does not compute. If seats are unreserved, why are ushers needed, and if they are, what kind of training do they need? How to run for safety when the doors finally do open, and the bludgeoning crowd descends?
Elderly ticket holders frequently lack the stamina required to stand in line for long periods. Many bring folding chairs with them to the theater while others have given up on Ebertfest altogether. "I don't understand why we can't have reserved seats," a woman in front of me complained some years back. "I know people who would love to be part of Ebertfest but are older and don't have the endurance to wait on line. It's age discrimination, don't you think?"
That was five years ago, the year I decided to ask one of the Ebertfest mucky-mucks why they didn't sell reserved seats. The answer I got was that "so and so enjoys seeing long lines." Was it possible that "so and so" also enjoyed the spectacle of hundreds of people charging each other like stampeding cattle — the quicker and more able-bodied beating out the older, slower patrons as they competed for the "good" seats? And did "so and so" also enjoy watching the winners fling blankets, sweaters, coats or backpacks over multiple seats in order to "reserve" them for their friends?
Another problem with the festival's "no reserved seats" policy is that those who would like to attend morning discussion panels cannot do so and make it back to the theater in time to find a seat with a good view. It's one or the other — not both; unless, of course, you've come to Ebertfest with Road Scholars (once known as Elderhostel). As part of their package, Road Scholars are picked up at their hotel by bus, taken to panel venues, and then bused to the theater where they are escorted to — ta, ta — RESERVED SEATS! Why is there dispensation for them?
At least Ebertfest lets the handicapped in early and seats them in a reserved section. That's the good news. The bad news is that because desperate times call for desperate measures, numbers of able-bodied people have joined the handicapped line, outfitted with canes.
There are other abuses — like the two very overweight women I've seen take four seats for themselves (coats thrown over the second seats), so they can comfortably spread their bulky bodies. Once I witnessed a fight in the line because a man let in a friend of his, and the people behind them took offense. Then there was the case of the woman, sitting in an aisle seat, who had reserved the two seats next to her. Another woman showed up later and told the seated woman to slide down a few seats so she could have the aisle seat. The seated woman refused and was calleda vulgar name.
If reserved seats were available, most of the cheating, the cursing, the fighting, the frenzy and the unintended age discrimination could be eliminated.
A short survey of other film festivals reveals that many do have reserved seating; albeit, at a higher price.
I'm sure there are many Ebertfest goers who would gladly pay a reasonable up-charge for a reserved seat. But if that doesn't happen — if Ebertfest continues with its present policy — I hope some entrepreneurial types start a service similar to the one that's been in existence for decades at the always-crowded traffic court in Urbana: pay someone to stand in line for you and save you a seat. I'd gladly pay for such a service.
Until one or the other happens, I'll continue to do what I've been doing for the last few years: make a list of all the Ebertfest movies, read the reviews, and when the recommended films become available, order them through Netflix or Amazon and watch them in the quiet of my home.
Carol Mizrahi is the author of the blog "The Bottom Whine" (http://www.thebottomwhine.blogspot.com) and "Coming of Age ... AGAIN," a novel. She lives in Champaign.