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Film Festivals Of The World #14: Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival

Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival, April 20 - 24, 2005.
by Ryan Arthur

One generally doesn't think of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois as being a hotbed of filmic activity. It's a community best known as being the hometowns of musical acts REO Speedwagon and (more recently) Alison Krauss, plus a former Miss America, and is best known to film geeks worldwide as the birthplace of the HAL 9000. But noted film critic Roger Ebert got his start in the area, and in 1999 he was asked by the College of Communications at the University of Illinois to host a film festival. Ebert decided that he wanted this festival to be "dedicated to taking a second look at wonderful films that for one reason or another haven't yet found the audiences they deserve." Now in its seventh year, Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival - called Ebertfest for short - has continued to grow in popularity among film enthusiasts.

Ebertfest: The Details
Where it's at: The historic Virginia Theater, in downtown Champaign, Illinois.

When it happens: Between the third and fourth week of April. This year, it's April 20-24.

How expensive it'll be: Depends on where you're getting your info. According to current advertising, a festival pass covering all of the films runs $75. Those sell fast, and were sold out in early March, so you're shit outta luck anyway. Individual film tickets are $8, and go on sale April 1. However, the Ebertfest website currently lists passes as $85 (again, already sold out, so don't even bother) and individual tickets at $9. So it's best to call ahead (217-356-9053). You can't buy tickets online, at least not right now.

Number of films screened: 12 films, one short. Each screening will include a discussion following the film with special guest or panel, who are usually related to the production or someone familiar with the subject.

Value for the money: If you buy the pass, you're paying $6.25 per film. Seeing a movie after 7:00 at any of the local multiplexes will run you anywhere from $6.50 to $8.00-plus. So you're on the low end of the average ticket price.

What you'll see: Here's your lineup for this year's fest:

Wednesday, April 20
7:30pm: Playtime (1967). The festival opens (as is now traditional) with a 70mm film, and the print for this Jacques Tati has recently been restored. Jonathan Rosenbaum, critic for the Chicago Reader, who considers Playtime to be the best film ever made, is the guest.

Thursday, April 21
1:00pm: Murderball (2005). Winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Wheelchair rugby player Mark Zupan, coach Joe Soares, directors Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin and producer Jeff Mandel are expected to attend.
4:30pm: The Saddest Music In The World (2003) and The Heart Of The World (2000). Director Guy Maddin will be in attendance.
9:00pm: After Dark, My Sweet (1990). Star Jason Patric will be there.

Friday, April 22
1:00pm: Yesterday (2004). An Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Film this year, and the first feature shot in the Zulu language. Producer Anant Singh and director Darrell Roodt will be in attendance, while star Leleti Khumala will be in attendance if her filming schedule permits.
4:30p.m.: The Phantom Of The Opera (1925). The Alloy Orchestra will be in attendance, performing their original score for the film.
8:30pm: BAADASSSSS! (2004). Director and star Mario Van Peebles will be in the heezy.

Saturday, April 23
Noon: The Secret Of Roan Inish (1994). The first show on Saturday is always a free family matinee. Director John Sayles and his longtime producer, Maggie Renzi, will be the guests.
3:00pm: Primer (2004). Winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. Writer, director and star Shane Carruth will be in attendance.
6:30pm: Map Of The Human Heart. Director Vincent Ward and star Jason Scott Lee have been invited.
9:30pm: Me And You And Everyone We Know (2005). This was Ebert's favorite film at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Performance artist Miranda July, who wrote, directed and starred in the film, will appear.

Sunday, April 24
Noon: Taal (1999). The Sunday matinee's a musical, and this one's a Bollywood musical. In attendance: director Subhash Ghai and Uma da Cunha, publisher of a Mumbai trade journal and an expert on Indian films. Sadly, star Aishwarya Rai will not be there.

There are also panel discussions, and these are held off-site (at the Illini Union, 1401 East Green Street, Urbana) and are free and open to the public:

Thursday, April 21, 2005, 10:00 am - 11:30 am
"Making Movies Outside the Matrix"
Moderated by Roger Ebert
Pine Lounge, 1st Floor

Friday, April 22, 2005, 10:00 am - 11:30 am
"Women in Film"
Moderated by Andrea Press
Pine Lounge, 1st Floor

Saturday, April 23, 2005, 9:30 am - 10:30 am
Roger Ebert / Jean Picker Firstenberg Discussion
Pine Lounge, 1st Floor

Saturday, April 23, 2005, 9:00 am - 11:30 am
Bringin' It All Back Home: The Principles of Independent Filmmaking
Presented by Michael Wiese
General Lounge, 2nd Floor

Celebrity spotting: Outside of the Festival guests, slim to none. Although the community is currently in the throes of March Madness, so you might see a University of Illinois basketball player (not likely at the fest, but if you're hitting the bars...)

Accomodations: Plenty of hotels, B & Bs and the like, but only a handful (maybe two or three, tops) are within walking distance. Lots of folks have made friends over the course of the festival's history, and will stay with friends in the community. As is the case with anything, book early, and do your research. Need info on Champaign? Check out the Visitor's Guide to Champaign County. Ebertfest's recommendations are here, but there are dozens of options.

Transport: There is shuttlebus service to and from the airports to hotels and downtown, plenty of options for cab service, too. If your hotel's on the outskirts of town, you're looking at maybe a 15 minute ride. You can get a map here and here (.pdf file). If you're driving in on your own, or are renting a car, instructions on where to park are found here.

Parties: There's usually a black-tie affair on the Tuesday before screenings start. The Rog and his wife will be there, as will most of the sponsors, community bigwigs and festival organizers and staff. You're probably not invited anyway, and I wouldn't recommend crashing. But, you're in a Big Ten college town. As such, there are ample nightlife possibilities - lots of bars, cafes, clubs and the like. Most are within walking distance from the theater or a short drive away. Depends on what you're in the mood for.

Getting laid: The Ebertfest crowd is...uh...diverse. I'm sure you might find someone, should you be looking. But again: it's a college town. There's dancing on C-Street, and a string of cafes and bars running down Neil Street (the main line of Champaign), Walnut Street and in the U of I Campustown area. There's plenty of coed trim if you want to look (and work) for it.

Best Venues: The only official venue is The Virginia Theater which is where all of the screenings take place. It's also, arguably, the best place to see a film in Champaign-Urbana, and one of my favorite theaters ever. For film-related specifics, we turn to the Virginia Theater's history:

"Projector: The Virginia is lucky enough to own a piece of history in its movie projectors. The two Norelco AA II projectors, arguably the finest 35/70-mm projectors ever made, were specifically designed to run "Oklahoma!" They come equipped with twin motors, one for normal 24 frame-per-second films, one for the 30-fps speed used only on the first two Todd AO films. One of these projectors is among several pieces of equipment left behind by GKC Cinemas. It was not installed with the advent of Todd AO in the mid 50's, however. It was installed in the late 70's or early 80's to run films that were available as 70-mm blow-ups from the 35-mm negatives-a common practice of the time. The second projector was installed in 2000. Both projectors were refurbished at that time.

Sound System: The sound system has been reworked. Along with the Voice of the Theatre cabinets, we have new JBL horns and 2 dual 18 JBL subs. 6 QSC Digital Cinema Amplifiers power the system. Thanks to a donation from the WGRC Champaign Rotary Club and Glen Poor Audio, 34 Phase Technology surround speakers were installed in the auditorium in March and April of 2002.

A donation from Digital Theatre Systems (DTS) in September of 2002 has put us in rarified company. We now have a Digital Time Code CD-ROM Special Venue System. This gives us digital 6.1 surround sound capabilities for 70-mm prints such as Patton, as well as 5.1 35-mm surround capabilities. With this addition, the Virginia Theatre has joined a rather elite set of premier movie house such as the Egyptian in Hollywood, the Ziegfield in New York, and the Castro in San Francisco, with the ability to run classic 70-mm multi-channel sound formats in DTS.

Screen: The screen (56' wide by 23' high) was installed in October of 2000. Weighing 1200 lbs., it is raised and lowered with a motor and drum winch assembly installed in November of 2001. The viewable image for cinemascope (are largest format) is 50' wide by 21 1/2' high
."

Ebert and his guests take the stage immediately after the film, and do their Q & A from there.

The 80-year-old Virginia Theater is also currently in the midst of ongoing restoration, and looks better now than it has in years past, and will look even better in years to come. A portion of the money from your ticket purchase goes to the Virginia Theater Restoration Fund.

There are other theaters in the C-U area, but none are officially affiliated with the festival. The only one within walking distance is Boardman's Art Theater, which will be showing Gunner Palace and, starting April 22, some of the Oscar nominated (and winning) Short Subject films: Ryan (Oscar winner), Birthday Boy, Gopher Broke, Wasp (Oscar Winner), 7:35 In The Morning, Two Cars, One Night and Little Terrorist. I can't say enough nice things about the Art, either, because of their stellar sound system. It changes owners about three years ago, and is much improved since then. If you get a chance to make it over there, I'd definitely recommend it.

Places to hang out: Take your pick. Again, it's a college town, so there's plenty to do and plenty of places to rest your feet. As far as food goes, Ebert himself swears by Steak 'n Shake. The closest one is a bit of a hike, but you could walk it if the weather's nice. And hey, they're open 24 hours. The Esquire has a fantastic fish sammich. Cowboy Monkeyfeatures great food and entertainment pretty much every night. And while both are a ways out of the way of the festival, you've got to try Dom's Italian Villa and The Courier Café, which are two of my most absolute favorite restaurants in the area. Otherwise, I'd say check C-U Local Biz Dining Guide. Coffee more your bag? Try Aroma Café (wi-fi available, and it used to be free, but I'm not sure if that's the case anymore) or Café Kopi. Booze? Visit Boltini (nice and hip), The Esquire or Guido's (with a patio on a busy streetcorner, great for people watching), all within stumbling distance. Music/DJs/shows/etc.? You want The Highdive. If you're a Livejournal user, I'd recommend you visit the Chambana Community to ask questions and get additional recommendations.

Press facilities/access: Ebertfest is different in that you're probably not going to hear any breaking news, or see any distribution deals get made, ore be able to pick up countless bags of swag. It's smaller, much more intimate, and there's not much in the way of coverage outside of the local media outlets, so odds are they won't have much (if anything) set up for you unless you call ahead. Check with festival organizers about accreditation. Contact information is available on the festival website.

Final Grade For Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival: A-. While there aren't nearly as many screenings as you'd see at any other film festival, the films that you will see are well worth the time and effort to get there. The staff's friendly and accommodating, the guests bring insight to the film after the fact, and it's generally a festival for fans and students of film, as well as for folks who are looking to see something that they've probably missed. They really have their act together. Get more information on Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival from the Ebertfest website.

Questions? Comments? Did I miss anything? E-mail me: nostatic@hollywoodbitchslap.com.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=1428
originally posted: 03/30/05 04:50:13
last updated: 09/24/05 07:10:48
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