Ebert, 62, is CEO and publisher of Ebert Digital, the company behind the film criticism website RogerEbert.com and the head of the Roger and Chaz Ebert Foundation, which supports arts and education programs. Her investments in the future of journalism are guided by quality, not click bait.
Interview by Drew Hunt
Photos by Alison Green
It’s been 19 months since Roger passed away, and I’m still getting used to being on my own. Even though I have all these things that keep me busy—and they’re all great things—I’m still trying to figure out where I’m going with it: What is my game plan? Where do I want to end up, and what do I want to create? You put one foot in front of the other and you just keep going. That’s what I’m learning now. I understand why Roger could go out there and do everything he did; he wasn’t the kind of person who spent time regretting things and looking back. The only things he looked back on were good times, so he could talk about them and write about them. I try to stay in the moment.
I surround myself with good people that help me keep things moving. I have two great editors at RogerEbert.com in Brian Tallerico and Matt Zoller Seitz. I think of the contemporary publishing world as the Wild West. This is a new terrain, a new territory. I feel fortunate for being able to attract these very talented writers we have. The only unfortunate thing is why we have them—newspapers are getting rid of their film writers. But Roger always said this was a new frontier. He saw the future of digital journalism, and he was prepared for it. We actually started RogerEbert.com in 2002 with the Sun-Times as our partner, and then moved independent in 2013. I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, or five years from now, but I know we put out a high-quality product.
We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a readership that has grown since Roger’s death, which is something we wouldn’t have thought possible. I have enormous sympathy for anyone trying to keep print publications going, because it’s not easy.
When I think of something with the Ebert name on it—both Roger’s and mine—it’s something I want to take pride in. I’m not interested in clickable stuff. I have people tell me, “Oh, if you did this—you think you have numbers now? They’ll really grow if you try this.” And I think about that sometimes because yeah, growth is good, but the number one thing is the quality of the work. As we enter a digital age, I think it’s so important that the writing community in Chicago, from a news and investigative standpoint to culture writing, remains strong. Investigative reporting is so important, especially in a city like Chicago, where our government has not always been so transparent, and I can’t emphasize enough my hopes that it continues in our newspapers and digital publications. News and writing is the lifeblood of the city.
The unified idea behind the website and Ebert Presents: At the Movies and all the other projects under the Ebert Company is to talk about the movies, but we’re also talking about how they intersect with our lives, which means we sometimes talk about things that might have nothing to do with the movies. It’s important to me that we write about things of conscience. That was always something that brought Roger and me together. We bonded so well as a couple because we both believed so firmly in social justice and the rights of people to live and thrive in this society.
Through the Ebert Foundation, we give grants to organizations in the arts and other areas, and we’ve given grants to some filmmakers who are making films about certain issues. We gave a small grant to a film called The Homestretch, a great movie about homeless students in Chicago. I have to tell you, when I first learned there were many homeless students in Chicago, I was shocked and appalled. That’s a time in your life when you should feel the most safety. To think there are high school students living in shelters, or their cars, not knowing where they’re gonna go, it’s crazy, and yet some of them are so determined that they still make it to school anyway. Talk about the resiliency of the human spirit. That gets me fired up. That’s where you start making a change in people’s lives, where you start making a change in society.
One of my favorite movies this year is Belle. It was such a surprise. It told a story that no one had ever heard, about this woman who had been born a slave but was adopted by an aristocrat from England, so she became an aristocrat at a time when you didn’t see a black woman in the aristocracy. I’d heard the story before, but I hadn’t tracked down the origins. I just loved that movie because it was a British costume drama done in a way we haven’t seen before, but also because it brings up issues of race and equality, and it’s beautiful on the screen.
I wish Roger could have seen Boyhood. He and I both love movies about space, so I wish also he could have seen Interstellar too. We both like the idea of a movie that’s set in space but keeps the human story number one. He definitely would have loved to see that.
If you only talk about the movies, it’s too abstract. But if you talk about the movies and how they impact our lives, that’s something very important to me. If it were a matter of just running a website that reviewed movies, I wouldn’t do it. That’s not what I’m about, and that’s not what Roger was about. He wrote with a purpose. He used to get letters from readers that said, “Mr. Ebert, why are you writing about your political views? Who cares about your views on society? That’s not what this movie is about,” and he would always respond, “Because I’m a citizen first, a film critic second.”
Chicago is a great city for charity and philanthropy. I hope that continues, because Chicago will remain my home base. I want to see it thrive. I want to see what I can do to contribute. When I was in third grade, I told my teacher, “I want to be a philanthropist,” and she said, “You can’t be a philanthropist, you don’t have any money!” But I’ve learned that you don’t need a lot of money to be a philanthropist; there’s still a lot of good charitable work to do. It can be something small that nevertheless has a real impact on a real person, who then pays it forward to another person. Everything that I do, that’s the bottom line. If I can do something, even a small act that has a big difference in someone’s life, that’s it for me.