Revisting the Collective: Seven Ways Roger Ebert Transformed Film Journalism

(CS: The site was rebranded in honour of one of the most influential writers for my career in Roger Ebert, and Siskel & Ebert was a major inspiration for The Movie Breakdown. It seems inevitable that I'd eventually get around to reposting a piece I wrote for Collective Publishing about the impact of Ebert on film journalism.)

Roger Ebert was one of the writers that I admired the most, and he was also a huge influence on my career. I wouldn’t have dived deep into the world of cinema if it wasn’t for his contagious passion for the art. On my blog, I’ve written a tribute to the creative genius and wonderful man, which you can read here. (CS: I didn't realize at the time how cool Collective Publishing and editor Diane Bertolin were in not only allowing me huge creative freedom on my columns, but also allowing me to link to my own site. Linking to one's own site is mostly considered a no go in publishing.) But I wasn’t the only person who was impacted by the career and life of Roger Ebert. Ebert revolutionized the world of film criticism and writing, and his work will continue to shape how we view and discuss motion pictures. 

Here are 7 of the major ways Ebert transformed the world of movie journalism. 

1. Multiple Platforms. Roger Ebert was a pioneer when it came to using multiple mediums to spread his message to the widest possible audience. Starting in 1967, he was a popular and well-respected film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, which his reviews eventually were syndicated to over 200 papers. Print wasn’t enough for Ebert, because in 1975 he started a popular film review TV show with Gene Siskel that over time expanded into several TV channels across the world, which made him a celebrity.
His brand was expanded by writing over 17 books on film reviews and various other topics, which many became bestsellers. He was one of the first to understand the power of social media on the internet, and used Twitter and his blog to enchant hundreds of thousands of new readers. This new source allowed him to connect with fans in a personal and intimate way as he discussed various topics including his battle with cancer or social issues close to his heart. Ebert showed the way for other writers on how to strengthen one’s own brand name. (CS: Ebert's business strategy is one that I am trying to follow, but I hope to delve a bit more into fiction than he ever did -- though he did some short stories and wrote a screenplay. I'm also miles behind him on effectively cracking the social media success code.)

2. Accessibility. Film critics used to be perceived as snobbish and self-righteous. Ebert wrote reviews that erased the jargon and took the time to explain why a film worked or failed. He also believed all genres had value and worth a deeper analysis. Unlike some critics, Ebert would give glowing reviews to action or sci-fi pictures, and didn’t just bestow four stars on high art films that no one understood. (CS: He gave four stars to a sci-fi movie that he admitted that he didn't understand in Cloud Atlas that most others panned.) According to Ebert, it didn’t matter as much if one could understand a film at an intellectual level, but rather if the film registered at an emotional level. (CS: I no longer ding a movie if I can't understand all of it, and feel that part of connecting to a movie is insignificant.) The idea of film criticism being sacred was shattered by Ebert, and analyzing film was actually something he encouraged to be done by all his readers. (CS: It should be noted Ebert also encouraged his audience to seek out arthouse, international and independent pictures. Something I try to do as well, because you are missing so many treasures by sticking to the mainstream.)
3. Influenced filmmaking. The critic can often be perceived as the enemy of the filmmaker. Ebert was embraced by Hollywood, and bestowed major honours like getting his name on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and becoming an honorary member of the Director Guild of America. Filmmakers realized that Ebert’s opinion could determine the success of their picture. He was a film scholar who understood how films connected with an audience, and so his opinions were cherished by auteurs like Steven Spielberg and Robert Redford. He is also one of the few critics that have been asked to participate in DVD commentaries for films like Citizen Kane and Dark City, since his insight was so valued. 

Ebert had intimate knowledge with the film creation process since in 1970 he wrote his own script Beyond the Valley of the Dolls for exploitation director, Russ Meyer. His love of watching and reviewing films kept him with the Sun-Times even though he had the opportunity to create more films in Hollywood. (CS: I would have loved to see more of Ebert's creative writing, as he had a great skill and imagination. It likely didn't drive him the same way that journalism and film criticism did.)
4. Opinion Shaper. Ebert has been a champion of films that may have otherwise been ignored. He was a massive advocate of Bonnie & Clyde, and he helped garner attention so it could reach iconic status. His books listing the best of cinema are considered canon and the accepted choice of must-see pictures. Yet Ebert has never tried to follow the crowd. He would proudly point out that many of his views didn’t follow the general consensus on sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Meta Critic. He’d praise films like Knowing that other critics panned. ((CS: He also recommended several Kevin James pictures like Paul Blart Mall Cop and The Zookeeper. I never claimed to agree with all his recommendations.) But he wrote his reviews in such a clear and articulate manner that it was almost impossible to argue with his assessment, even if you hated the film. (CS: I love his The Texas Chainsaw Massacre review, even though he disliked the movie and I think it is a horror classic, because he is so articulate in expressing his experience with the movie.)     

5. Great writer. Before Ebert, film reviews weren’t much more than just a quick synopsis on a film that was coming out. It really wasn’t a form of writing that was held in high regard. Ebert brought a wit, sense of humour, charm and poetry to his prose that made his reviews their own works of art. He wrote pieces that were entertaining and heartfelt, and you could instantly feel his passion and love for cinema. He’d make a great film sound legendary, and his panning of bad films was more engaging than the pictures. The ultimate sign of his skill was when he became the first film critic to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1975. (CS: I was shortchanging the significance of Pauline Kael, because she not only started writing eloquent and thought-provoking reviews before Ebert, but he has admitted she was an influence on his own writing.)     

6. Two Thumbs Up. Critics have used the four rating system for a long time. Ebert came up with a unique way to distinguish if a film was worth a viewer’s time. “Two Thumbs Up” is now a major part of most people’s lexicon and a way to declare something as great. It was revolutionary idea back in 1986 when used for his TV show with Siskel, and one that from that point forward was a symbol of a film worth watching. It was a gimmick, but an effective one. It also then motivated many other critics to come up with their own original way to rate a film that could make them stand out. There really hasn’t ever been any other gimmick that is as memorable as those two thumbs. (CS: Duoly Noted.)  

7. Deep love for cinema. There are some critics that have made me wonder if they even liked reviewing in their medium. I never had that doubt with Ebert. He was passionate about cinema and the love was contagious. His goal was to get as many people educated on film and for them to be able to share his love. One of the best ways to do this was his yearly film festival originally called Overlooked Film Festival, and his goal was to showcase foreign films, little known current films and classic films he feared were forgotten. He wanted people to know that there was more than just the latest big releases, and that there was a whole world of wonderful pictures worth exploring. Ebert believed film was the greatest art form, and an amazing way to not only tell a story but to spread a profound message. After just reading a few of his pieces, you often felt the same way.

(CS: Ebert was also prolific and had something you could read almost every single day. And that is something I aim to do in May and beyond.)