You couldn’t help but wonder if this year’s Ebertfest in Champaign, Illinois, near the campus of the University of Illinois, was going to be the last. My first Ebertfest was in 2005, the final year in which Roger Ebert got on stage, introduced the films, and discussed them afterward, the sound of his voice so booming and distinctive it reached all the way to the balcony of the old-timey Virginia Theatre toward audiences who couldn’t quite see the man. Since 2006 and Ebert’s throat surgery, his presence at the festival became increasingly less pronounced, but you still knew, even if only in the abstract, that you were watching movies the famed critic had chosen and reviewed.
So how can you continue to put on a critic’s handpicked film festival when that critic’s hand has ceased to pick out the wheat from the chaff? For the time being at least, Chaz Ebert, Roger’s widow, said on Wednesday night, while introducing Days of Heaven, that before he passed away, Roger wrote up a list for her with movies for next year’s festival, if not for a few more into the future. Moreover, with her announcement of the new Ebertfest app, the redesign of rogerebert.com, the new media company she and Roger developed (Ebert Digital), and the new Roger Ebert film studies program (depending on how much money can be raised) for University of Illinois, it felt like Ebertfest will have the momentum to be powered through the next couple of years, if not all the way to its 20th anniversary and beyond.