In celebration of the 18th Annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, Illinois Public Media – in partnership with the College of Media at the University of Illinois – produced “Ebertfest 2016: Center of the Universe.” This 30-minute companion documentary covers the life and legacy of Roger Ebert as well as the history of the festival. It also includes a short preview of Ebertfest 2016.
Ebert opened his April 21, 2009 journal entry on rogerebert.com by saying, “I was born at the center of the universe, and have had good fortune for all of my days.”
Ebert often talked and wrote, with great affection, about his hometown of Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. He didn’t just grow up here; he went to Urbana High School and then to the University of Illinois before leaving to pursue his career in Chicago. Decades later, Ebert and his wife, Chaz Ebert, came together with other partners to bring Roger Ebert’s Film Festival to the “center of the universe.” Seventeen festivals later, even after his passing in 2013, there are no signs of Ebertfest going anywhere else.
At the heart of the film are powerful, first-person accounts of both Ebert and the festival he created by those who knew him and the event best. Interviewees include film critics Richard Roeper and Michael Phillips; Casey Ludwig, the assistant director of Ebertfest; Steven Bentz, the director of the Virginia Theatre; and other festival participants and friends. Chaz Ebert, who also is the co-founder and co-producer of Ebertfest, also is featured in the program.
“I grew up watching Roger Ebert on public television. He was a revolutionary film critic, becoming the first to win a Pulitzer Prize and receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It’s clear his influence was vast, and his passion for film was unending,” said Moss Bresnahan, the CEO and president of Illinois Public Media. “As we see in this particular program, his influence and enthusiasm is still felt through this festival.”
Those interviewed also share thoughts on what to expect at this year’s Ebertfest.
Tim Meyers, the director and co-producer, and Lisa Bralts, writer and co-producer, both feel lucky to have worked on a project like this one. “We learned so much about Ebertfest’s history in Champaign-Urbana; we discovered more about the festival’s inner workings, and also had the chance to talk to several people about Ebertfest’s evolution in these few years after Roger Ebert’s passing, which is especially important as the media and cultural landscape continues to shift,” Bralts said. “Having these people tell this part of the Ebert story, in their own words – it’s pretty powerful.”
The program premieres on WILL-TV at 9 p.m. April 4 with an encore presentation on WILL-TV at 7:30 p.m. April 7. The program also is available online. Ebertfest 2016 takes place April 13-17 at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign.
The film also will air on WEIU in Charleston at 7 p.m. April 8; on WTTW in Chicago at 5:30 p.m. April 10; and on WTVP in Peoria at 9:30 p.m. April 15, with an encore presentation on WTVP at 3:30 p.m. April 17.
During the making of this film, Illinois Public Media tapped into the expertise of U. of I. College of Media faculty and staff members.