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The Thumb That Roared

Jan 23, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Special to TelevisionWeek

Given movie critic Roger Ebert’s broad appeal in print, on the lecture circuit and, most prominently, on his long-running TV show, now known as “Ebert & Roeper” and syndicated by Buena Vista Television, many filmmakers have made business decisions based in part on his reviews.

“Roger’s early endorsement of a film at a festival can make a huge difference,” said Mark Urman, head of U.S. theatrical distribution at ThinkFilm. “Most recently, his rave about Mark Wexler’s `Tell Them Who You Are,’ a film about legendary cinematographer Haskell Wexler [the filmmaker’s father] out of the 2004 Toronto Festival, actually emboldened me to pick it up [for theatrical release].”

Mr. Urman is not alone in being swayed by Mr. Ebert’s clout in the film world. “As a pop culture icon, Roger is a venerable one-man brand,” said Steve Elzer, senior VP of media relations for Sony Pictures. “He has the biggest thumb in the world, and people pay attention to whether it’s pointed up or down.”

One person who pays attention is Eric Kops, executive VP of worldwide publicity for MGM and United Artists. “[Mr. Ebert] has credibility with film lovers but also speaks to the masses-whether it’s the suburban housewife or the indie art house moviegoer,” Mr. Kops said. “In Toronto, Roger called `Hotel Rwanda’ a masterpiece and the No. 1 film of the year. Once he offered up that review, it helped to shape our distribution strategy. We decided to open somewhat wider than we had planned.”

“Rwanda” received Golden Globe nominations for lead actor Don Cheadle and for best film, and is expected by many to be similarly honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when Oscar nominations are announced this week.

While Mr. Ebert is equally comfortable reviewing mainstream releases, his reviews have perhaps the most effect on independent film releases. “Roger played a critical role in the success of several [of our] films, most notably `Sling Blade’ and `City of God,”‘ said Harvey Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax Films. “He’s much more than a critic-he’s a champion of films, especially more independent projects like these, which do not have the same big studio support.”

Often, a vote of confidence from Mr. Ebert makes the difference in getting a film seen. “We needed a champion early for the film `Monster,”‘ said Bob Berney, president of Newmarket Films. “Roger reviewed the film a few weeks before it opened in New York and said that Charlize Theron’s performance was one of the best in the history of cinema. That early support really made the difference, and the film took off in many ways because of that initial review.”

Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Films Releasing, said his company, too, has benefited from Mr. Ebert’s support. “When he called `Monster’s Ball’ the best picture of the year, that really helped us break the film out of the art houses and into the commercial multiplexes,” Mr. Ortenberg said.

“Roger represents the everyman,” said Dennis Rice, senior VP for Walt Disney Pictures. “We in Hollywood forget that there are people outside of Los Angeles that go to movies. He’s America’s critic.”