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Chaz Ebert's mission goes on

From stage to art galleries to screens, Chaz Ebert looks to extend her late husband's legacy

Mark Caro

10:53 AM EST, January 10, 2014

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Roger Ebert has been gone for nine months and doesn't appear to have slowed down much.

His website, RogerEbert.com, is growing its readership, reports his wife of 20 years, Chaz Ebert, while it employs dozens of film critics and writers, mostly as freelancers. "Hoop Dreams" director Steve James' documentary based on the late critic's 2011 memoir "Life Itself" premieres next Sunday at the Sundance Film Festival, also where eight aspiring film critics will receive mentorship and see their work published on Indiewire and RogerEbert.com in a collaboration between the independent-film website and what Chaz is calling the Roger Ebert Film Critic Scholar program.

Ebert Productions, one of several Ebert-related companies, is developing multiple television shows, including a movie trivia game show, a show revolving around the critic's "The Great Movies" books and another that "has nothing to do with movies," Chaz Ebert says as she sits in the living room of their elegant, light-filled Lincoln Park brownstone, a binder in hand to help her keep track of all of the Ebert projects she's pushing forward.

"And we're working on an Ebert animated series," she says. "We are actually in active talks with someone about this now, and they asked that we not really say any more about it. Just an Ebert animated series."

Would Roger be a character in this?

"Yes."

There's more, much more, and as Chaz Ebert runs through these projects, she catches herself. "When I say all of this stuff, I'm thinking, my God, that sounds like even more than he was working on before," the 61-year-old former trial lawyer says. "But that's how he was. He always said, 'I contain multitudes,'" quoting Walt Whitman.

Chaz Ebert knows that not every idea will come to fruition, but she is leaving few avenues unexplored in her efforts to maintain the public profile of her late husband, "an extraordinary man" who had a profound impact on the movies, criticism and the broader culture.

"She is like a creative force in terms of expanding the brand of Roger," says Marlene Iglitzen, the widow of Roger Ebert's former TV sparring partner and Tribune movie critic Gene Siskel. "He really was a brand, and she's hoping he'll continue to be."

The looming question is how far the legacy of someone even as popular as Roger Ebert can be extended posthumously. People keep buying Paul Newman's charity-supporting salad dressings and other foods, but those products aren't reliant on the actor's presence. Yoko Ono created an industry around John Lennon's whimsical drawings, but there's no continued effort to apply the Lennon brand to other musicians' work the way that RogerEbert.com is attempting to thrive as a film criticism site without new reviews from Roger Ebert.

The expanded website and other ventures were in process before Roger Ebert died in April at age 70 after an 11-year cancer battle. Surgery complications in 2006 left him without his lower jaw or the ability to speak or to eat solid foods. It was during those ensuing seven years that Ebert went from famous film critic to inspirational figure as he wrote candidly and eloquently about his illness and life in blog posts, columns and the memoir. He also became an especially influential social-media presence while giving no ground in his film-writing duties.

James says when he approached Ebert about basing a documentary on his autobiography, "he was intrigued with the whole idea and got on board." But in December 2012, the month that filming began, Ebert broke his hip, and James wound up documenting the last four months of his life mostly in the hospital and rehabilitation center, though the filmmaker says the material didn't come out depressing.

"There are certainly sobering moments in the film, but I found his spirit and sense of humor very much alive and inspiring," James says.

Chaz Ebert recalls that on April 4 — a day and a half after the online posting of Roger's "leave of presence" announcement that he was pulling back on daily duties in the wake of his cancer's return, even as his website would be relaunching — he was supposed to head home from the hospital but wound up sitting still in a chair:

"'Oh,' I said. 'Oh, he's meditating. He's been in the hospital for a few months, and he's meditating about maybe his experience here or what happens when he goes home' — and then we realized he wasn't meditating, that he was transitioning — out of here, and, wow. And it was, like, unbelievable. Unbelievable! I was stunned."

"His death in April was a surprise to everyone, including people close to him," James says.

"Maybe Roger knew that he was going," Chaz Ebert says. "Why else would he give me his secret password to his Twitter code or his Facebook code? He had never given those to me before. Why else would he admonish me in the hospital every time I'd visit: 'You must keep my Twitter account alive. You must keep my Facebook account alive. You must continue to write. We're developing these other voices on the website; you must continue to do that'? Everything was, 'Don't wrap it up, keep going.'"

Roger Ebert's official Twitter account, @EbertChicago, remains active with its 821,000 followers, though now Chaz does most of the postings, making sure to begin "Chaz:" and often linking to RogerEbert.com pieces. A separate RogerEbert.com Twitter account, @EbertVoices, bills itself as "preserving and extending the legacy of Roger Ebert"; it has close to 5,000 followers.

@EbertMovie, the Twitter account for the "Life Itself" documentary (about 1,400 followers), mostly has been pushing its efforts on Indiegogo to crowdfund $150,000 in postproduction costs by Monday at midnight. (About $119,000 had been raised as of Thursday afternoon.) Not only does each contributor receive a tweeted shout-out with a link to an archived Ebert movie review, but whoever refers the most actual donors to the site over the campaign's last week will win "the chance to write a movie review for Roger's alma mater, the Chicago Sun-Times!" Michael Ferro, chairman of Sun-Times parent company Wrapports LLC, is an executive producer on the film; one of the paper's editors says the guest review will appear on the Sun-Times website for a day.

The film is being produced by Chicago's Kartemquin Films, and James says he had "complete autonomy" as well as "final edit" and "final control," so "Life Itself" is not technically one of Chaz Ebert's projects, though RogerEbert.com is promoting it prominently. She says she viewed an early cut and offered some notes but otherwise wants to wait to see the finished film at Sundance.

In the meantime, she is almost constantly traveling and attending meetings to push the ball forward on the various projects. "It just seems so natural and normal to keep doing what we were doing together," she says. "I hope people understand that, because it's not that I'm doing this just to keep Roger alive. I'm doing it because I think it's important."

She acknowledges that some of these projects sprung from her own initiative. "Of course I've had to maneuver quickly and make some quick decisions and do some things differently, and some things are just my idea alone," she says. "Not everything is my idea and Roger's idea. People didn't know that I was the vice president of the Ebert Co. for over 20 years. People didn't know that behind the scenes I was the one who handled the business, and Roger was the creative guy."

As for why he was interested in launching so many new projects toward the end, she says he "still wanted to be part of the conversation" about movies but also: "I think he was doing it for me, so that I'd have something to do," she says. "But he always said, 'Make it yours.'"

So, for instance …

"We have a Siskel and Ebert musical in the works," she says, noting that she and Iglitzen "thought that something about Siskel and Ebert could be fun on the stage. Actually, it was my idea because I like plays, and I like Broadway shows. …

"I see it as a multimedia production where you have people stepping off the screen. And it's not really about Roger and Gene. They're the hooks for it, but we're really exploring the different decades of looking at America's dreams through these two guys at the movies. I see it as more of a musical. Marlene sees it as more of a drama."

Iglitzen says she's enthusiastic about a potential stage show "because the chemistry (between Siskel and Ebert) to this date has not been duplicated, and they were just so funny."

Also in development is something called the Ebert Meter, which would be an app as well as an online experience "that would involve having professional critics give their view (on a movie) but also having fans interact with their own views and conversations about movies," Chaz Ebert says.

Then there are the e-books being planned by Ebert Publishing, which she says may eventually involve other authors but likely will start off by offering Roger Ebert works not already covered by his traditional publishing deals.

"Like a Roger's interviews book?" I ask.

"Exactly," she says.

"Or magazine pieces?"

"Exactly."

Chaz Ebert is working on her own literary venture as well.

"I'm actually writing a book about us and about conversations that I still have with him," she says. "It's a book a little bit about the afterlife. When I say I still speak with Roger, people think I mean metaphorically. I mean literally, not figuratively. And so he's still with me still sort of a guiding force, and he still very much lets me know how much he loves me."

Meanwhile, the 16th annual Roger Ebert's Film Festival (formerly Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival and commonly referred to as Ebertfest) will take place April 23-27 in Champaign's Virginia Theatre. This will be the first Ebertfest without Roger's direct involvement, although festival director Nathaniel Kohn and Chaz Ebert say he left behind a long list of films he wished to see programmed down the line.

"Even though the final decision would be Roger's, Nate and I were very much involved with Roger in putting together Ebertfest, and so I can see doing it easily for the next 10 years," Chaz Ebert says.

Efforts also are ongoing to create a Roger Ebert film studies center or program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Ebert's alma mater and the area where he grew up. "The aim is to raise a minimum of $5 million for the Roger Ebert Center of Film Studies that would be housed in the College of Media," Kohn says.

Back in Chicago the Ebert house's lower-level screening room, complete with marquee ("The Lyric" in honor of where Roger and Chaz had their first date), is being reconfigured as a studio to accommodate some TV work as well as podcasts, Chaz Ebert said. Her nephew Daniel Jackson, who moved to Chicago from Minneapolis in May, works in the home office as the Ebert Co.'s project manager.

Chaz Ebert also mentions efforts of the Ebert Foundation, the couple's charitable arm "that we started with the sale of some of our Google stock," and then she remembers another idea:

"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