Robert Ebert obit

Through his work documenting the lives of young athletic hopefuls in Hoop Dreams and community organizers attempting to curb street violence in The Interrupters, director Steve James has established himself as one of the most important windows through which the world has seen and understood the city of Chicago over the last few decades. The Windy City is a large and complex metropolis that contains more types of stories than just those that are occurring in its most struggling neighborhoods though, so James has a lot more work to do when it comes to fully dissecting the burg, and the most recent chunk of work he’s been doing is likely going to be of particular interest to fans of film.

James has been hard at work putting together a documentary focused on the life of famed Chicago film critic Roger Ebert called Life Itself, which is loosely based off of Ebert’s engaging and insightful memoir of the same name. Sounds like something you’d probably want to see, right? Well, like with most things in life, there’s a catch. Now that James is deep in post-production on the film, he’s starting to run out of money, and he’s turned to IndieGoGo in order to acquire some financial help from fans so that he can apply all of the finishing touches. Unlike some of the more controversial uses of crowd funding to get a film made we’ve seen in the past though, this campaign is one that everyone is probably going to want to support.

There’s a few reasons for that. First off, as anyone who read Ebert’s memoir can tell you, everyone’s favorite film critic lived a pretty interesting life steeped not only in unique experiences inside the film industry, but also in Midwestern Americana, and said life led to the man being the sort of person who was chock full of wisdom about a whole host of subjects. Getting the chance to see how he went from being a small-town boy in central Illinois to being one of the most trusted and respected writers in the world, through the work of a filmmaker as talented as James, is an opportunity that would be foolish to pass up. According to the press release accompanying this campaign, Ebert himself was optimistic about the potential for James’ documentary before his passing, as he’s quoted as saying, “I believe Steve James’ Hoop Dreams is one of the greatest documentaries ever made, and my hopes for this [new documentary] are high.”

If the man himself had high hopes, who are we to argue? Especially when the video embedded on the project’s IndieGoGo page is already such a tasty tease of what James has likely been able to craft out of all of the footage of Ebert that exists out there. “Movies are a machine that generate empathy,” that Ebert was a smart fella.

Probably most importantly though, this crowd funding campaign is an attractive one to contribute to because it’s not asking for a ton of money, and it’s also providing supporters with the opportunity to bolster a few good causes with their donations. Anyone who has seen Stevie knows that a Steve James documentary that dives into a singular human subject is going to be intriguing enough to be worth paying a few bucks for already, but one that’s also going to be tossing its monetary overflow to groups that promote film studies and that help emerging filmmakers is doubly so.

The money James is looking for, in order to add things like music and onscreen graphics to the film, amounts to $150,000, and the fundraiser page claims that, “If we are fortunate enough to exceed our fundraising goal, we intend to contribute towards charitable causes. The Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation & The Roger Ebert Film Studies Center at his alma mater, the University of Illinois, represent Roger–what he stood for as a critic, a progressive voice, and someone who bravely battled cancer and disabilities.” There’s even a $75 “DVD Shared Happiness Deal” that you can pick on the site which gets you an autographed copy of the film and also sends another copy to an educational institution of your choice. We’ve got to look out for the children. These kids are getting stupider by the moment, especially when it comes to what they know about movies.

What are some of the other perks that you can sign up for? The basic one is that you can pay $25 in order to get a pre-theatrical stream of the film that will allow you to be among the first people to see it, but larger amounts can earn you more enticing incentives. Payments of $100 will get you into screenings of the film happening in either New York, LA, Chicago, or Ebert’s hometown of Champaign-Urbana, and from there prizes go all the way up to a $5000 private screening for you and 48 guests at the Lake Street Screening Room, where many of Chicago’s top critics go to do their quiet judging of Hollywood’s latest offerings. Is $5000 a little bit much to pay for a private screening of a documentary? Probably, for most people. You should at least cough up that $25 to get your own stream of the movie though, if for no other reason than I selfishly really want to watch a Steve James-directed documentary about one of my idols. If you won’t think of the children, then at least think of me. Or think of all of the fun stories about drunk 70s Ebert that are probably out there. Stories that need to be told.


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