How Roger Ebert helped put the Toronto International Film Festival on the map


When news broke on Thursday about the death of legendary film critic Roger Ebert yesterday, tributes began flooding in from filmmakers, actors, moviegoers, and fans from around the world.

See also: Hollywood reacts to the death of Roger Ebert

The author, screenwriter, reviewer, “At the Movies” co-host, and Illinois native was a favourite son of the Windy City, writing for the Chicago Sun Times from 1967 until his death. However, another city also held a special place in its heart for Ebert: Toronto.

In many ways, Ebert helped put the cosmopolitan Toronto we know today – very much a product of world-renowned events like the Toronto International Film Festival – on the map. An early supporter and fan of TIFF (back when it was called The Festival of Festivals), Ebert could always be found haunting Hogtown cinemas during the annual September fest. The superstar movie critic (if such a title even exists, only Ebert would really qualify for it) would then dole out his coveted/dreaded thumb-based or star-based critiques of festival films. In the process, he brought stories and anecdotes about Toronto to a larger audience than was then possible for the modest little film fest. Whether it was a scathing criticism or a four star write-up, an Ebert movie review always got people talking.

Ebert made Toronto cool and Hollywood took notice. Critics from around the world soon started making time for TIFF every year, and major studios began clamouring to have their prestige pictures premiere at Toronto. The fall event was quickly transformed from a simple “best of other film fests” festival to the unofficial kickoff for Oscar season.

See also: Eight things you may not have known about Roger Ebert

The Toronto International Film Festival released a statement yesterday about Ebert’s sudden death, emphasizing the prolific critic’s role in making the event what it is today:

We are terribly saddened by the news of the passing of our friend Roger Ebert. More than a friend, Roger was family. He knew us from our humble beginnings, stuck by us, and helped us grow, as only family can do.

It is no exaggeration to say that Roger, through his championing, had a large hand in making us who we are today on the world stage. He was a pioneer, a true lover of film. His passing is a huge loss for cinema. He inspired us and will continue to inspire generations. We are taking this opportunity to remember and celebrate our beloved friend, Roger Ebert.

Our hearts go out to Chaz and to their family and friends.

TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey took to Twitter shortly afterwards and added the following.

Movies are human documents. They show us our soul. Roger Ebert taught me that. Rest in peace.

— Cameron Bailey (@cameron_tiff) April 4, 2013

Most of the posthumous tributes, while kind and thoughtful, omit the fact that Ebert rocked the boat a few times at TIFF, sometimes making bigger news than the movies at past festivals.

A 2002 incident at a packed press screening of “Far From Heaven” saw Ebert and a number of other top shelf critics unable to find seats due to “industry types” filling up the theatre. Ebert subsequently engaged in a war of words over snub – both with TIFF volunteers at the cinema and with TIFF’s organizers online and in print. The row eventually resulted in TIFF changing its press & industry screening policies so that certain accredited critics and journalists would be guaranteed access.

Or then there was the time at at 2008 screening of “Slumdog Millionaire” when Ebert (then unable to speak due to surgery that removed part of his jaw) was allegedly “attacked” by New York Post critic Lou Lumenick. Ebert, who was reportedly sitting behind Lumenick and couldn’t see the film’s subtitles as a result, was said to have repeatedly tapped the other critic on the shoulder to ask him to adjust his position. Lumenick then supposedly rose from his seat, shouted "Don't touch me!" and struck Ebert with a binder. Ebert himself shrugged off the incident, but that didn't make it any less strange.

See also: Roger Ebert: A critic who changed the game

Ebert sightings were a regular occurrence during the festival. But for this young writer, it was always a genuine thrill to see the critic at a TIFF screening – it meant that whether the film was good or bad, I’d picked the right movie to see that day. After the film, Ebert could often be found in the lobby, holding court with other critics and journalists to talk about the movie they’d just watched. (I confess to eavesdropping on my fair share of those conversations and debates, too shy and in awe to chime in with my own opinions.)

In more recent years, Ebert could still be glimpsed at the festival’s venues and movie theatres, his wife Chaz by his side. Despite being debilitated by his cancer, Ebert always made time for Toronto. TIFF will go on, but festival won’t be the same without him.

The author, screenwriter, reviewer, pouringrs, and fans pouredr bad, I'thrill to see Ebert at a TIFF screening - it “At the Movies” co-host , and Illinois native was a favourite son of the Windy City, writing for the Chicago Sun Times from 1967 until his death, but another city also held a special place in its heart for the critic: Toronto.