Usually I don’t get to the opening movie of Ebertfest until a few minutes before — or after — it begins. But I went over to the Virginia Theatre an hour or so ago and was surprised to see two women sitting in the festival pass-holder line. Or what will be the beginning of the line.
Neither Kathleen Smith, who was first, or Marilyn Marshall would tell me when they first arrived. They wanted to keep that secret. But the first movie didn’t start for another four or so hours when I saw them there. 
Both women work at the University of Illinois, Roger Ebert’s alma mater. Smith was grading her students’ Math 405 papers. Marshall, an administrator, was talking on her cell. Marshall’s attended parts of all 13 earlier festivals. Smith has gone to 12 of them.
They wait — even though "there’s hardly a bad sat in the Virginia at all," Smith said.
Well, I wouldn’t say that.
Before I copped a VIP festival pass, I had to sit a few times up in the nosebleed-seats on the balcony sides. I found the chairs there a little tight and uncomfortable, and the view, not so good. But friends of mine like to score seats up there because, if the show’s not sold out, they have room to stretch out. And they said there’s really no bad seat from which to see the big screen.
I’ve heard it’s sort of a free-for-all when festival-goers enter the theater to find a good place among the 1,525 seats. None is reserved except those in the VIP section on the main floor. Ebert and his wife, Chaz, who is festival emcee, sit at the very back of the VIP section. In recent years, Ebert is ensconced in a comfortable recliner. .
I know at times people with regular passes sneak into the VIP section. If they’re lucky, they are not shooed away by one of the ushers, who keep a careful watch on that section. If it’s not too crowded, I some times leave the VIP-section for general seating, joking that I want to sit with the plebes.
The festival started in 1999; I remember the first few when I would enter the theater 5 minutes before a movie began and find a good seat, just a few rows back, center. Those days are gone as the festival, now in its 14th year, with 12 or so movies all chosen by Ebert because he likes them and/or feels they’re overlooked, has become increasingly popular, drawing more people each year.
They come from all over. Among them this year are 60 folks of a certain age and older who are with the Road Scholar Program, formerly called Elderhostel, a program of the UI Office of Online and Continuing Education. They come by the busload to Ebertfest and do not get preferred seating; they have just the regular festival passes, which cost $135 this year.
Usually people save their seats by folding the festival program or a jacket over the back of the seat. Some times people get a little testy, but for the most part the festival-goers are polite and compassionate, following the lead of and atmosphere established by Roger and Chaz Ebert.
Over five days of marathon movie-watching, Ebertfest becomes a grueling, rigorous test of one’s physical stamina. But most festival-goers embrace the discomforts for the magic, returning year after year.