Guest Blogger, Jason Schwartz, Reflects on Ebertfest 2016

Eighteen years ago, legendary film critic and Urbana-native Roger Ebert set out to showcase excellent films that had not been given enough attention by the public, film critics, or even distributors. His mission has long since been accomplished, and his impact on the Champaign area has never been greater.


Over the course of five days last week, the 18th edition of Ebertfest took place at the marvelous Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign. Twelve films were showcased at the event with Q&A after each one featuring directors, producers, and actors from the various films.


As a great alumnus of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Ebert was the first film critic to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize. But his most lasting accomplishment is the event that was originally titled the Overlooked Film Festival. Since then, the name of the film festival has aptly become Ebertfest. Since Ebert’s passing in 2013, Ebertfest has served as an annual tribute to Ebert’s lasting legacy in the area.


As a soon-to-be University of Illinois alumnus, and an avid movie watcher, it is hard not to be in awe of the great Roger Ebert. Ebert took movie appreciation to a whole new level and brought an energy to film critiquing that could not be matched. Attending the same university and having one of the most unique film festivals in the nation in my own backyard in Champaign, it is hard to not appreciate all that Ebert has done.


Walking into the vintage Virginia Theater and being treated to films of the highest quality in all different genres is truly a pleasure. But to be able to discuss the director’s decisions in the film is a truly unique experience any film fanatic would jump through hoops to be a part of.


Of course all of this is taking place where Ebert first discovered his voice. While at the University of Illinois in the 1960’s, Ebert became the Editor in Chief at the Daily Illini, the school’s newspaper. He followed up that leadership position with his first major gig at the Chicago Sun-Times in 1967 as a film critic.


Ebert has the ability to put a spotlight on films that are either under-covered, or under-appreciated. As the original film festival title intended, this experience is a chance to enlighten audiences to the hidden beauty of each of the films that are highlighted. Ebert has the ability to put a spotlight on


Take for example the opening movie displayed at Ebertfest, “Crimson Peak”. The movie was promoted as a horror film by its distributor Universal. However, director Guillermo del Toro used the festival as a platform to clear the air.


He viewed his film as a “gothic romance” that was filled with beauty and intrigue. Instead, it was labeled as a horror film and all the cliche and stereotypes that follow that genre. But through the Q&A, del Toro was able to answer the audience’s questions as well as go into more detail about his thought process throughout the directing process.


“I wanted the house to be completely real. I didn’t want a single portion of the house to be (computer generated). So we built all three and a half stories of the house. For me to climb three stories for a movie, I have to love it very much,” del Toro exclaimed.


He continued, “To me (the Ebertfest screening) was about closure with ‘Crimson,’ because it’s a movie I love dearly that was sold as something it was not. It was sold as a horror movie and it wasn’t.”


These quotes show the passion that goes in to each and every movie displayed at Ebertfest and illustrate the unique setting for audiences to interact and get a feeling for how and why different aspects of the movie were the way they were.


Ebertfest 2016 was a massive success both as a film festival, and as a lasting tribute to one of the area’s finest children. If you were unable to make it out to Virginia Theater this year, make sure to be back in Champaign next spring when Ebertfest writes its newest chapter.


Jason is a senior at the University of Illinois double majoring in Economics and Communications. He can be followed on twitter and you can contact him via e-mail at