Around these parts, we’re pretty partial to Matt Zoller Seitz, the pop-culture-obsessed multihyphenate who founded The House Next Door, and either mentored or befriended a great number of House and Slant writers before moving on to develop sites like Press Play and become TV critic for New York magazine. But even for those without any Seitz biases, chances are it’s hard not to admire the guy’s pluck. On July 4, it will have been one month to the day since news officially broke that Seitz had been named editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com. Of course, despite the massive loss we all suffered when Ebert passed, this job quickly seemed among the most coveted in all of entertainment journalism. And yet, it presented quite an intimidating challenge too. Though both Seitz and Ebert’s widow, RogerEbert.com publisher Chaz Ebert, have stressed that, naturally, no one could ever replace Roger, Seitz has accepted a torch-pass from someone who was rather inarguably the most popular film critic ever, and whose revered position is one of the hardest acts to follow in the history of the profession. But despite the hubbub, hurdles, and pressure that could unnerve even the steeliest pro, Seitz appears to have seized his role with grace and, indeed, guts, which is to say nothing of his recent championing of what might be the most widely-reviled flick of the year.
Seitz’s glowing review of the Will and Jaden Smith vehicle After Earth, which largely tanked with critics and audiences alike, brought out the venom in a lot of RogerEbert.com’s commenters, some of them heatedly declaring that Seitz’s dissenting views reflected an inability to carry on the Movie Answer Man’s legacy. The article’s minefield of a thread, which Seitz characteristically tread through with curiosity and kill-’em-with-kindness professionalism, is just one of the things he and I discussed while chatting last week. Speaking at length, we also talked about the the tragic bomb-drop of James Gandolfini’s death, RogerEbert.com’s growth as a home to great writers of all types (and origins), how Seitz came to get the job in the first place, and how it allows him to employ his old-school journalistic skills. Like Ebert before him, Seitz has a background as a newspaperman, his more than two decades in the business including a stint at New Jersey’s Star Ledger. There are plenty more connections between the two men, like a near-uncanny prolificness, an intimate writing style filled with personal experience, a penchant for finding and fostering talent, and a humility that feels genuine. The more we talk, the clearer and clearer it becomes that, biases aside, Seitz was the right choice, not to fill Ebert’s shoes, but to walk in his footsteps.
So, how have things been going with the new gig? What’s it been like taking the reins of a legend’s home base?
Well, it’s been really quite exciting and overwhelming, I must say. I’ve been a journalist for over 22 years, and this poses a unique set of challenges in that I have every skill that I need to do this job, but I’m not Roger. And I think that’s something that everyone is having to get accustomed to. It’s interesting—the response has been mostly very, very pleasant among regulars on the site, and then there are some people who don’t like me, and don’t like what I do. Whether that’s a reaction to the work itself or simply to the fact that I’m not Roger is a question that I can’t answer, and I don’t really know who should even try to answer it. But, you know, this is the way of human experience. Roger was a beloved man, and if it hadn’t been me, it would have been somebody else, and it’s very likely they would have encountered exactly the same issues. Someone that a lot of people loved very much is gone. We’re never going to collectively get over that. And, in my opinion, the worst possible way to try and move on is to attempt to be Roger, or to replicate exactly who I think Roger was, [in part] because my version of Roger is different than your version, and different than somebody else’s version. We all have this sort of fantasy version of who Roger was, and nobody could ever really match up to it.
When this interview publishes, it will have been just about one month since everyone found out that you had been chosen to head up RogerEbert.com; however, I don’t believe too many announcements focused on exactly how your selection came about. Can you briefly describe that process?
Sure. Chaz [Ebert] asked me to do this at the last Ebertfest. She invited me to an apartment she has in Champaign [Illinois] for a meeting, and other members of Ebert Digital, their company, were present. And she basically said, “I like you, Roger liked you, and we think you’re the guy to run the site. Could you do it?” I thought they were going to ask me to do something but I didn’t think it was going to be that. Chaz had been in contact with me periodically in the weeks leading up to Roger’s death, to say things along the lines of, “Things are very, very busy right now, but very soon I want to talk to you about your site,” meaning Press Play. Press Play and RogerEbert.com had a lot of contributors in common, and still do, and both sites have promoted each other’s content. And what I figured was happening was that Roger was ill, he couldn’t really be the leader and make sure that content was getting on the site in the way that he wanted, and maybe they wanted Press Play to help somehow? I wasn’t quite sure what Chaz was on about. But I did not expect it was going to be asking me to be editor-in-chief. I was kind of blindsided actually.
How have the other aspects of your career, such as your job at New York Magazine, changed as a result of this? Have they changed?
Well, [my work at] New York Magazine and Vulture is kind of a job-and-a-half anyway. So there was some skepticism on the part of the publisher there about whether I was going to be able to do this. But when I explained to him that this is approximately the same amount of work I was investing in Press Play, while writing for New York Magazine and Vulture, they eventually decided that they were alright with it. They’re an incredibly supportive organization, and I think there was an understanding on their part that this was special, and that it wasn’t just like any other job. I think they kind of understood that this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and they wanted me to be able to say yes as much as I wanted to say yes. I think the big challenge now is just dealing with the 24-hours-a-day role. And I’m actually getting good at that. I’ve always been known for my ability to do a lot of things simultaneously, but, boy, this is really putting it to the test. But what I’m discovering is, when I think about Roger, and what Roger was able to accomplish in a day, I find that my time-management skills instantly improve. Even before Roger got cancer, he was doing three, four, five, six things at once, and quite well. And he was apparently still living a full and satisfying life—he wasn’t a slave to his computer and he wasn’t chained to his desk. He got out, he went to festivals, he traveled, and he took trips that sometimes didn’t have anything to do with movies. I’d like to do that someday, and Roger showed me that it’s possible.
That’s a good note on which to start talking about the connections between you and Roger, and what things you’ve carried over to RogerEbert.com that have proved a good fit. First of all, you started Links for the Day, which we use here, and now you have Thumbnails over at your MZS blog, which is very similar.
Oh, it’s basically the exact same thing I used to do at the House. Let’s not kid anyone!
Well, like Roger, you have this voracious appetite for pop culture and a keen knack for social media, so much so, that when I do Links for the Day, your Twitter and/or Facebook feeds end up being resources.
[Laughs] It’s funny you should say that because one of the lessons that I learned a couple years ago was if I had a really, really good idea, I wouldn’t share it on Twitter or Facebook. Because occasionally I would do that and then I would see a blog post with basically that idea. And occasionally, there’d be a link back to me, saying “Thanks, man, for talking about this on your Facebook page!” [Laughs]
Do you find that doing Links for the Day, and now Thumbnails, is more a way for you to share the things you’re interested in with the world, or to better catch yourself up on what’s going on in the world?
It’s a little of both. It’s three things, really: It’s giving myself a way to cast a wider net in terms of what I read and watch; it’s a way to spread the Internet wealth around a little, and send some traffic somewhere else, which is something that Roger was very much into; and then I guess the third thing, which is sort of related to that, is it makes feel a little bit closer to Roger when I’m doing it. And there are often other editors and writers who are suggesting things that make their way in, but I’m the guy who’s writing the posts and laying them out. What I’m really aiming for, and I don’t know if I’m ever going to get there, is the kind of curation that they practice at Harper’s. In my opinion, that’s the best magazine in the world. I love The New Yorker, I love New York Magazine—there are a lot of good magazines out there. But with Harper’s, there’s something uniquely arty, and weird, and special—a vitality with which it’s laid out. There are these intuitive connections with how things are arranged on a page. And I don’t think I’ve gotten there with Links, or rather, Thumbnails—ha-ha, a Freudian slip—but I hope to, someday.