Roger Ebert documentary gets a thumbs-up from Scorsese

05:00 AM, Nov 20, 2013

Roger Ebert gives a thumbs-up. Mario Anzuoni, Reuters/Corbis/


Written By by Scott Bowles, USA TODAY

Roger Ebert didn’t pull any punches if he didn’t like a film, regardless of the star power behind it. Of Michael Bay’sArmageddon, he wrote: “No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.”

But the stars are aligning for a new documentary about the Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, who died in April. Director Martin Scorsese and Schindler’s List screenwriter Steve Zaillian will executive-produce Life Itself, based on Ebert’s memoirs.

The film will be directed by Steve James (Hoop Dreams) and feature a wrinkle befitting the populist critic: It will be “crowdfunded,” a hot, Internet-based tool for filmmakers to drum up financing through fan donations and social media.

Unlike most crowdfunding sites, however, Life’s will reward donors with a streaming version of the film before it hits theaters, planned for early 2014.

Roger was a very plain-spoken, Midwestern guy who connected with America,” says James, whose career took off when Ebert championed Hoop Dreams, a 1994 documentary about high school basketball in Chicago. “It seemed fitting that his movie be accessible first to the community that loved him.”

The film, which includes interviews with Ebert before he died of cancer, does not yet have a distributor but will make the festival circuit in January and will air on CNN next year.

Producers are seeking $150,000 through crowdfunding site Indiegogo.com. The campaign ends at 11:59 p.m on Dec. 20, and a portion of any surplus money will go to Ebert’s favorite charities, including cancer research, according to a release by Indiegogo.com.

Crowdfunding has generated funds and controversy for some stars, including director Spike Lee, actor Zach Braff and Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas, who have drummed up millions through Kickstarter.com.

Some critics say filmmakers are taking advantage of fan-producers, who often receive a T-shirt or DVD coupon for contributions. Recently, Daniel Radcliffe posted a video skewering crowdfunding, asking for “forty-thousand hundred million dollars” for a film he’ll anchor with “lots of hardcore sex.”

The Ebert film “is structurally set up as a response” to other crowdfunding projects, says John Sloss, founder of Cinetic Media, which is representing the movie. “A producer of a movie should get a ticket to it.”

On its blog, Kickstarter.com counters that many of its members are independent filmmakers who need a financial lift. Over a three-month span earlier this year, the site says, “more than $21 million has been pledged to filmmakers on Kickstarter not named Rob Thomas, Zach Braff or Spike Lee.”

James says he’s less concerned with funding than getting a thumbs-up from fans.

Even in his tough reviews, Roger showed how much he loved the movies,” he says. “That’s the man we want to show.”