Even muted by a tracheotomy tube — the result of complications following a bout with thyroid cancer — there was no diminishing the presence of critic Roger Ebert at the ninth edition of his Overlooked Film Festival over the weekend.
The annual gathering, an unusual and meticulously conceived event that honors neglected film works, turned into a de facto tribute to the populist and influential critic who founded the event. Ebert, making his first public appearance in nearly a year and seated in La-Z-Boy chair set up for him in the back of the theater, drew nods of appreciation from studio execs and filmmakers ranging from Sony Classics chief Michael Barker to helmers Andy Davis and Werner Herzog.
Throughout the weekend, there were comments, nods and shout-outs to the power of “Roger” — or sometimes, simply, “him” — as many credited the critic with rescuing everything from their own careers to American film.
Every April for the last nine years, thousands have gathered in this college town in central Illinois — home to Ebert’s alma mater, the U. of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — to bask in Ebert’s movie tastes and hear his wide-ranging discussions with Hollywood and indie filmmakers in what is a big-name but still intimate event.
But the fest was almost scrapped this year. Last fall, Ebert was in the midst of an eight-month hospital stay in Florida, fighting for his life, and was about to call it off when he heard organizers had sold out the entire run of 1,000 festival passes within days, five months before the fest would even start. He changed his mind, and the show was back on.
With Ebert unable to assume his role as moderator, Chaz, fest director Nate Kohn and others compensated by having a host of guests stand in during his famous post-screening Q&As with filmmakers, which have been known to run as long as two hours.
Kohn and Chaz also did what Ebert never would have allowed them to do in previous years: schedule a Sunday screening of “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls,” Russ Meyer’s 1970 cult sequel, for which Ebert penned the screenplay.
“I was very depressed. It’s been a long process, and in a way this festival is my rebirth,” Ebert said in an interview via a notepad on which he pens quick, assured strokes.
Ebert gave his thoughts on a number of subjects, including the substitutes who’ve this year occupied his seat on his syndicated film review show with Richard Roeper, saying, “Without naming names, I prefer guests who are critics (professionally or naturally) than ‘celebrities.’ ” (Ebert has some, but not total, say over who sits in.)
And despite his populist reputation, he said the B.O. success of several movies this year in the face of critical panning has disheartened him about the state of the moviegoing public.
“Will people ever tire of the junk — will they develop a hunger for good films?” he asked. “It’s two hours of their lives, forever gone.”
The most underappreciated movie of the year, Ebert says, was Tom Tykwer’s “Perfume,” a film whose dismal U.S. box office he attributed to the pic’s “getting lost in the Christmas rush.”
It was clear from Ebert’s responses that while his physical condition may be frail, his mind is as sharply opinionated as ever.
Of course, one didn’t need to visit with Ebert to feel his presence. His name and likeness are everywhere at the fest, staring out from fest posters and book jackets, not to mention the tote bags and umbrellas sold at the gift stand.
The marquee outside the stately 1,500-seat Virginia Theater, where all screenings take place, says it all: “Ebertfest.”
The ubiquity of the Ebert name and image marks the evolution of the critic from one of many television and newspaper personalities to a brand.
While most film fests continue to expand with various additional sections and side events, Ebertfest is an anomaly. It’s a tightly focused, one-venue event created and put into action by one man (with the help of a tight network of confidantes like Kohn and Chaz). The emphasis is on selectivity over quantity — about four movies screen each day, followed by musical perfs or leisurely chats with panelists, filmmakers and the audience.
It’s also accompanied by the presentation of a “Golden Thumb” — said to be modeled after the critic’s own — to directors who screen a film.
Since the beginning, the fest for new and old underrated gems has been a forum for unlikely factions to gather: the industry and the indie, the casual filmgoer and the cinephile (sample t-shirt: “Too many subtitles, too little time”).
Programmed this year with a typical mix of Hollywood sheen (“Gattaca,” “The Weather Man”) and eat-your-vegetables sincerity (“Stroszek,” “La Dolce Vita”), it offered moments one wouldn’t expect at the same event.
It’s the kind of festival where “The Fugitive” helmer Davis describes how Dick Cook came to greenlight “Holes,” Sony Classics’ Barker holds forth on the sound editing in “La Dolce Vita” and Joey Lauren Adams, stealing a smoke, is accosted by a fan asking “You were in that Adam Sandler movie, weren’t you?”
What could be a dubious honor — the movies, after all, are considered overlooked — becomes an indulgence for filmmakers. Around the fest, directors and writers talked about the charms of an adoring crowd of thousands parsing their every choice long after their movies have come and gone at the theaters.
Barker called it the “single most pleasurable festival I’ve ever gone to.”