INTERVIEW: Roger Ebert

My two-week trip to the Cannes Film Festival didn't forego me many opportunities to hob-knob with celebs (well, other than that so-called brush with the very lovely Angelina Jolie, of course), but it was my absolute pleasure to get the chance to meet one of the top (if not, the top) film critics in North America during my passage in France, that being: Roger Ebert. I had corresponded with Roger once or twice over the years, and even sent in an audition tape of myself back when he was searching for a new co-host (shoulda known not to review FIGHT CLUB on the tape...damn!!), but surprised was I to discover that he was more than gracious enough to take some time out of his busy schedule in Cannes (trust me, he apparently tries to see 4 movies a day!) to speak to my sorry little ass.

Now even though I've never considered myself a real "film critic"-- more like just a fan with an opinion on movies that have been peculiar enough to interest some-- it was still pretty daunting to meet a man who's steadily been reviewing movies since the mid-60s, and whose repertoire of reviewed films leaves my dinky 1000 critiques, blowing in the wind. That said, I wanted to get Roger's take on the whole phenomenon of the Internet, technology, digital filmmaking, downloading/piracy and how the studios are handling it all. Well, enough about me...take it away, Roger!

JoBlo: So how did you become a film critic?

Ebert: I got my job more or less by an accident in timing, in 1957, I was a feature writer at the Chicago Sun-Times, and the film critic retired and they gave me the job. So when people asked me over the years, “How do I get to be a movie critic?”, and for a long time I just had to say, “You know, there are probably only about 50 big-time paid positions in North America.” I mean, how many movie critics are there? Now with the Internet, you can hire yourself as a movie critic, and there are actually people making a living doing that. I presume that you probably do?

I do now, yeah. The last couple of years. It’s more of a full-blown movie site nowadays, as opposed to just “movie reviews”, but yeah.

The first Internet movie critic that I actually met was James Berardinelli.

I’m a fan as well.

I became aware of him very early on. You know, he’s a computer engineer by day?

Really? He still does that?

Yeah. It’s his full-time job. So when people ask me how to become a film critic nowadays, I say, “Make yourself one, say you’re one.” Go on the Web. And there’s so much more information flying around in such a way that everybody knows so much more about the movies than they ever did before. And then when you add the extra bells and whistles on DVDs, today the average movie-goer who is interested in a film, really likes a particular film, finds out more about it, than 30 years ago, probably more than any director knew.

A lot of up-and-coming directors have said how they now listen to other directors’ commentary tracks as part of their own film education. Switching gears, how has the Internet affected the way you do your job as a film critic? Has it made it harder?

I’m essentially still doing the same job—writing for the Chicago Sun-Times, I’ve always been the only movie critic there, and try to review every movie coming out. That has made my database very useful now, on the Internet, since most critics, over the 37 years that I’ve been around, got into situations where they would change jobs or there would add another critic or two other critics on the same paper.

My colleague Pauline Kael used to complain that she didn’t review films 6 months out of the year because she would switch with Penelope Gilliatt. Right now, I’m starting a new website called RogerEbert.com, on which we are going to feature all of my reviews going back to 1967. It’s in partnership with the Sun-Times. Nothing before 1985 was in digital form before because that’s when we abandoned typewriters. My website will be the only place on the Web where you will have the same guy reviewing movies since 1967, at least most of the major films.

When will the website be launching?

March the 1st. April the 1st. May the 1st. June the 1st. Any moment now.


We get a lot of hits at this point. I get emails from all over the world. Not millions, but there might be a person in Turkey or a person in Japan who are interested in a particular movie. You get information through the Internet!

Right, and with the Internet being a lot more interactive, do you get more actors/directors emailing you and maybe, complaining about a review of yours?

Not really.

Really? That’s surprising.

Generally speaking, stars and directors don’t contact me. There are certain people who are on the Internet like Kevin Smith, Roger Avary-- people like that, who are just people but no, I haven’t started getting emails from Coppola or Scorsese.

And what are some of the movie sites, let’s say, that you visit regularly, on a daily basis or a weekly basis?

On a daily basis, I go to IMDB, Movie City News…on Fridays when the movies come out I like to go to Rotten Tomatoes, and MetaCritic, which is like Rotten Tomatoes. There are various sites that I go to, not on a daily basis, but because I am interested: your site

Oh, thanks…

Berardinelli, Variety, Hollywood Reporter, Film Journal International….

So you’re on the Net a lot

Yeah. Usually, when I am writing the reviews there aren’t any reviews out there of course, because I write the review before the opening date, so it’s not like I read any reviews before I write my own. But oddly enough, I don’t think there is anything shameful to that, I hold an education as an English Literature student and I was getting my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago when I dropped out to be a film critic.


And the theory was you’d never write about a book or a poem without having read the criticism. So when I do my “Great Movies” articles, they appear about every other week, I’ve done about 203 of them now, of course I read other stuff, I get information that way, but not so much from the Internet, but also from books. So yeah, I go to the Internet a lot, but also I just meander around.

Do you ever anonymously go into chat rooms or message boards?

No, there’s a rumor that I have a pseudonym at Rotten Tomatoes, but it’s not true. Whenever I go on the Internet I sign my own name, but of course it does no good because nobody believes it’s me.

Yeah sure, you’re Roger Ebert! Official movie sites, what do you think of them, do you visit them?

They are very useless.

I agree.

Here is the one thing that a critic often needs, tell me if you have the same feeling. You get back home, you’re writing your review, you can’t remember who played a certain character, because it’s a minor character. The cast, on the official movie site, will give the name of the actor, and the name of the character, but doesn’t describe who the character was, and often times in the movie they never call the character by name, so you want to know who played the bartender, and they won’t tell you that. I would like just one word, like ‘the goal keeper’, ‘the taxi driver’, because that’s the kind of information that you just can’t get. Why don’t they tell us in just one word to describe the character? That would be much more useful than all the little games you could play, which is next to useless to me.

With that, what do you think of the studios effectiveness on the Internet, in terms of how they’re utilizing to push their movies, or market their movies. What is your opinion, are they doing a good job?

Well, sometimes I will look at the trailer, especially if I want to see how they are advertising something.

For trailers, it’s good.

Yeah, but that’s about it. Some of the sites are extremely clever.

Can you think of any examples off the top of your head?

There was one that I thought was a pretty good site…I might have even mentioned it in my review. It was a documentary and it had a lot more information on its site…I forget right now. But in general, no, the sites are weak. I’m sure that there are movie fans and kids who go to the sites and enjoy them, but overall, they’re not very useful. Also, I find it amazing that movie publicists apparently never go to IMDB to correct their own movies.

Oh, really?

Sometimes I’ve made mistakes, and we’ve all made mistakes by trusting the IMDB, getting a character wrong or misspelled. And I understand how it works, it all gradually gets corrected, I’ve actually corrected a lot of stuff on IMDB myself, but I wish the publicist would go online and know about that and know that the press, at least, get more information there than we would on the official movie site.

That’s a very good point. Hopefully, they’ll consider that. So what’s your take on digital filmmaking, projection…

Anyway you can make the film, to get it made, that’s fine with me. I have this thing called the “Overlooked Film Festival” every April, and I showed TARNATION, which is here. You know the official story is it was made for $218. But that was actually the cost of getting it onto a DVD out of his Macintosh for screening at Sundance. He used home movies, his own video, answering machines, photographs, and so forth. So he made it on a Mac, and he was able to release it on DVD and it cost him $218.

Of course, the movie you’re seeing here cost several hundred thousand dollars because they had to clear the movie rights, they had to clean up, load it up the 35, they had to promote it and put ads in Variety. They say that EL MARIACHI cost $8,000-- which it did, but it cost about $600,000 to get it in the theaters. Nevertheless, the point is today, using digital, you can get a movie to the point where you can make the movie, put it on DVD and show it to people with very little money, and that essentially puts the tools of production in the hands of the workers, so I think it’s good. I don’t always feel that digital is the right choice for every movie, I prefer celluloid, but I understand digital, and sometimes I am happy to see digital because some movies simply wouldn’t be made otherwise.

As far as projection is concerned, I still feel strongly that celluloid is better than digital, for projection. I am going to tell you something that nobody will believe: MaxiVision 48 is not dead. I’ve been pushing that for four years, well not pushing it, but I’ve seen it. It’s four times better than today’s film.


I think about three or four years ago, everybody was convinced that digital projection was the wave of the future, and it’s not going to happen in terms of mass releases because Hollywood is too paranoid about piracy. And they don’t have a satellite delivery system that will condense it enough to get it down, and if you did do that, you would have a footprint of every actor that ever worked in North America.


So I think MaxiVision 48 will actually be seen in theaters, believe it or not, and I’m sure you don’t.

We’ll see. We have your words on tape. And what do you think of the whole illegal movie downloading situation right now? Is it something that studios will eventually have to deal with, is it wrong, is it inevitable…?

I think it’s theft.


I would not be able to go into a bookstore and steal a book.

Or photocopy it and then walk out with it.

No, so therefore since I couldn’t steal a book…I mean, I am not a thief! I wouldn’t steal a tape recorder from a Radio Shack--

But you’re not really stealing it, are you? I mean, if somebody put it out there, right? I guess that’s the dilemma.

The person who put it out there is stealing it, and you’re buying it from the fence. And the fence is giving it to you for free. I mean, if you have to see a movie that badly, you could wait for the DVD and rent it for a couple of bucks and see a much better picture, well maybe not, if you have a T1 line you can download DVD quality, most people don’t yet, but they will.

They will.

You know what’s interesting is THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST apparently has been downloaded 600 thousand times on the Internet.


Yeah, apparently by good Christians. I just feel it is theft. By the same token, I’m all in favor of not charging on the Internet, we’re not going to charge for my web site.

Right. But what about movies? Studios are talking about how in a few years they might actually make them available on certain sites for downloading?

Pay per view is fine with me, if that’s what people want. You know unless you have a T1 line, it’s such a pain in the ass to download a high quality movie. If you try to do it on DSL, and you want DVD quality, you might as well just walk away from your computer and come back tomorrow, or next week. You can burn it on a DVD, but if it’s not high quality, it doesn’t work very well. Some of the movies on the net that are Quicktime or RealAudio, they’re smaller files. But I think it is theft, don’t you?

Absolutely. I haven’t done it, not even once, I don’t like to do it. But I know people on my site do it, on the message board they were talking about it, especially the younger generation, so it’s something that studios have to deal with. In fact, for me, it’s always been more about the love of the movie, I don’t want to see it on a small screen, all blurry, I want to see it on the big screen and enjoy it. Something like 2046, why would you want to see that on a small screen?

Can you imagine seeing that in a RealAudio window or Quicktime? Somebody wrote to me and said if Michael Moore is so concerned about his message, why doesn’t he put his movie for free on the Internet?

That’s a very good point.

And I think one reason might be that it cost him money to make it, and another reason might be that I can’t imagine watching that movie in Quicktime. In order to be able to download it with my line, it would have to be a small Quicktime file and even that would take hours.

One thing a lot of studios are doing marketing-wise, they’re putting 5-10 minute clips of their movies online, so maybe he can do something like that?

I’d like to see him put that seven minutes of Bush in that Florida classroom online [from FAHRENHEIT 9/11]. You know one of the most interesting things in that movie is information that he had in that classroom for seven minutes after he knew about the World Trade Center and they had to go and get him out. I’d like to see his face during those seven minutes.

Yeah. That was pretty awful. Okay, that’s it. Maybe one last question: what do you think is the best and worst thing about the Internet?

The best thing is it’s universal—I want to try to think of something original, since that would be something everybody would say. Of course, the Internet would be meaningless without search capabilities and Google or other search engines are the tools that unlock the Internet. I can find out the answers to things I really need to know right away, if I know how to phrase the question correctly, or phrase the search correctly.

It’s like a huge library.

The other day, for example, I took a picture of the leopard ladies, you know who they are?

No. The Leopard Ladies?

They are a mother and daughter who have come to Cannes for 21 years dressed in leopard skins. And the daughter now has a short in the competition this year. They live in Lille, France, and I took a picture of them. Then when I got back to my hotel room, I thought I’ve never asked them what their names are, so in Google I typed “Cannes, leopard ladies, names” and I got their names-- they only give first names. So sitting in my hotel room, in five seconds I can find out the given names of the leopard ladies. I started coming here when you used a portable typewriter and you took your copy down to the Telex booth and got it typed in by French speaking typists and it was then sent to America by Western Union. The Internet gives you potentially the opportunity to find out almost anything you want to know, that’s the good thing.

The bad thing is potentially the Latin phrase “Caveat Emptor”, Let The Buyer Beware. You have no idea whether it’s right or wrong. A lot of information gets out there and goes all around and is wrong and becomes a factoid because of its distribution. The other problem with the Internet is for all the time you save, that’s how much time you waste. Well, I find out the names of the leopard ladies in five seconds, and while I’m online I go to Google news, I go to the Drudge Report, I go to Yahoo, I check out a couple of blogs, I go to Salon, I start reading some articles and there’s a link in it and I click. Then when I look at my history, I find out that I found out about the leopard ladies and some 27 other sites that I would have never gone to if I hadn’t gone online in the first place.


So you have to really be disciplined. Occasionally, when I have an article to write, I will take my laptop, which is not connected to the Internet, and go into another part of the house so that I can write my article. Of course, then when I need to know something, I have to go back to the Internet and find it out. The problem is that the Internet can lead you into this aimless surfing behavior.

Good, thanks a lot, I don’t want to take up more of your time.

How many hits do you get?

We get 50 thousand people a day-- unique visitors on the site right now.

And you’re supported largely through ads?

Yeah, ads. We have an ad network that takes care of all that stuff. Most of the studios advertise their latest films on our site, which is cool. Actually, since we’re in Cannes and I have you here, what was general impression of the Festival this year?

I thought, in general, the films were better this year [than last year].

No BROWN BUNNY’s this year…?


I heard a few people comparing Asia Argento’s movie to that film [THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS]…

There was a story from Vincent Gallo today, he’s here again this year (more on that here)— and he said that it wasn’t the booing and it wasn’t Roger Ebert really [that upset him last year]— he was going through a sad time in his life, both professionally and personally. The funny thing is that I did think THE BROWN BUNNY was a very bad film, but I’ve always liked Vincent Gallo’s work—

BUFFALO 66’ was great!

I really liked that movie. [Director] Robert Altman once told me that if you never gave me bad reviews, what would the good reviews mean?


I mean, I wouldn’t want to read a review from someone who liked everything I did. Of course, Altman said, however, "Most of your negative reviews of my work have been mistaken".

That’s funny. Well, thanks again for your time, Roger and it was really nice meeting you.

Thank you and keep in touch. Also, congratulations on surviving the festival in one piece.

Source: JoBlo.com



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