Chaz Ebert's mission goes on

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"We're going to have an art show," she says, "and we're talking both to universities and art galleries about the installations. You know, Roger was a sketch artist. He drew, and he painted, and he was a photographer."

Yet the most ambitious project continues to be the website.

For the first decade of its existence, while it was attached to the Sun-Times' website, RogerEbert.com primarily was the home of Roger Ebert's writings, both new and archived. Jim Emerson, Ebert's right-hand man on that first RogerEbert.com incarnation, parted company with Chaz Ebert last year, saying they "didn't see eye to eye" on the new site.

"My feeling was the thing to do would have been to invest a small amount of money in keeping that database up there and adding to it and creating a living database, even though it could only be from basically April 2013 back," Emerson says. "I think that's Roger's legacy."

Instead, the retooled site, now independent of the Sun-Times, has New York Magazine television critic Matt Zoller Seitz serving as its editor and offers a platform for film critics, a group that Ebert understood to be a professionally beleaguered group. RogerEbert.com presents various critics reviewing new releases (last week's home page featured 13 movies reviewed by nine critics, which has been fairly typical) plus essays, stories, Chaz's Blog, the recurring My Favorite Roger feature (in which contributors choose their favorite Ebert pieces) and the voluminous Roger Ebert archive.

"Roger is dead, but the ideas that Roger represented are still very much alive," Seitz says. "That's what I told all of the contributors, that Roger Ebert was not just a man, he was an idea, and ideas survive beyond the death of the person who created them."

Those ideas, he says, involve the breaking down of the wall between "critic" and "reviewer" — that you could offer substantive thought while fulfilling "the really basic consumer function" of whether a movie is worth your time. Seitz says he has tried to maintain a stable of writers who would stay true to Ebert's spirit, awakening people's excitement and curiosity about movies while employing a keen critical eye.

Says Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Michael Barker, an Ebert friend whose company has supplied Ebertfest with specialized films: "The site feels guided not just by (Ebert's) taste but by his embracing films of different cultures of the world and films as entertainment but not just entertainment. ... It still feels like it's his."

Chaz Ebert says the approach has been working, with traffic to the site rising in recent months. ComScore Media Metrix reports that RogerEbert.com had 841,000 unique visitors specifically from U.S. desktops in November 2013, up 35 percent from the 621,000 in November 2012. Chaz Ebert says internal server figures show traffic having risen to 2.8 million unique monthly visitors, and, though she declined to offer specific numbers, she says the site is profitable.

RogerEbert.com may be emblematic of how people consume film criticism nowadays: Readers can find almost every reviewer on the aggregate Rotten Tomatoes site, or they can explore the smart collectives at the Chicago-based The Dissolve, the A.V. Club and RogerEbert.com, as well as other sites such as Cinephiled. Fostering that intimate reader-critic relationship is that much trickier.

"I think they've been very successful in choosing writers who carry on Roger Ebert's passion for film," Dissolve editorial director Keith Phipps says of RogerEbert.com.

Yet there's also been some backlash. One commenter on Robert Feder's blog complained about "the ghoulish attempt to keep Roger Ebert's website going. There was only one Roger. The writers on the site now don't compare to him. There's no point in keeping the Roger Ebert site going except for reflected glory. I find it a little bit creepy."

"People have been saying that from the very beginning," Seitz says. "There was a lot of, 'Oh, you should just shut it down,' which I don't understand. If Roger was a master chef and he was about to open his own restaurant finally and then he dies right before the restaurant opens, would you say this is a sin against the legacy of this great chef, you should never open this restaurant? It defies logic."

Still, Seitz acknowledges that readers inevitably will wonder what Ebert would have written about the films being covered. "We're all very much in the shadow of the imaginary Roger," Seitz says. "Everybody has their own personal version of Roger, and they think they know what Roger would have said or thought about everything."

Says Chaz: "I'm grateful that people care about what he would have thought or how he would have thought." She laughs. "That gives me joy, actually."

I ask her whether she can think of any comparable instance of someone's so-called brand being extended in such a way after he was gone.

"Elvis," she says, then laughs.

"I hope your quality control will be higher," I crack.

"I'm just going to say this statement: I think Roger came to this earth to be a pioneer. For years he pioneered in so many areas: in tech, in social media, in TV, on the radio. And I think he's continuing to be a pioneer from beyond, and somehow I think I was put here to be his partner in pioneering …

"I don't have a crystal ball. I can't tell you where any of this is going to end up or what's going to happen. All I know is each day it feels like the right thing to do, and so that's what I do."

mcaro@tribune.com

Twitter @MarkCaro

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