Ebertfest to continue as a tribute to film critic

This year’s Ebertfest marks the 15th anniversary since the start of the famed film festival. It also will be the first since the passing of its esteemed host, Roger Ebert. 

The festival will continue, said festival director Nate Kohn, despite the news of Ebert’s recent death on Thursday in Chicago. Additionally, the festival will be continuing for years to come, said associate festival director Mary Susan Britt in an email.

“We want people to know that it was Roger’s wish that we continue the festival,” Kohn said. “And we’re going to honor his wish.”

Ebertfest, which is scheduled for April 17-21, is an annual film festival sponsored by the College of Media and hosted in The Virginia Theatre in Champaign. The festival features a selection of films chosen by Ebert and Kohn. In addition to the film screenings, there are academic panel discussions at the Illini Union Pine Lounge in Urbana. Filmmakers and other special guests also speak at the annual event.

This year, Chaz Ebert, Ebert’s wife, will again serve as the emcee of the event, which will act as a tribute to Ebert. The organizers also have a few surprises planned in honor of Ebertfest’s 15th anniversary, Kohn said.

Steven Bentz, director of The Virginia Theatre, acknowledged the sadness that will resonate with everyone who attends the event and also throughout the Champaign-Urbana community.

“It’s going to be an extremely poignant moment when almost 1,500 people come into this room and Roger Ebert isn’t able to be sitting with us,” Bentz said. “It can’t help but be an emotional moment, and I think we all know that we have that coming.”

Betsy Hendrick, Ebert’s friend and sponsor of the event, became friends with Ebert when they were both reporters at The News-Gazette. She said that she expects a high attendance rate this year as visitors will be coming to honor the former host.

“I think that people who haven’t been here for a few years would like to come back, kind of as a tribute to Roger,” she said.

The week of Ebertfest also marks the grand reopening of The Virginia Theatre, which underwent an extensive renovation that cost roughly $5.5 million, Bentz said. 

The construction began in June 2012, and the reopening will be on Saturday, April 13, four days before Ebertfest.

Bentz said the Champaign Park District kept Ebert informed about the renovations throughout the year.

“We are really, really so sad he is unable to walk in that door and see the freshly restored Virginia,” Bentz said.

With Ebert’s passing, visitors may feel that the atmosphere of the event may change, but Kohn said the message will stay the same.

“Obviously the tone of the festival will be different this year. But the bottom line is it still will be a celebration of films that Roger loves,” Kohn said.

Bentz said he is grateful to have worked with Ebert in the past and witness the impact he had upon the people he met.

“He treated everyone in his path with such kindness and dignity. He was just an extraordinary individual,” he said.

Alison can be reached at akmarco2@dailyillini.com.

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