Chaz Ebert's mission goes on

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

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.

CHICAGO

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