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Roger Ebert's legacy continues with the creation of The Ebert Center, announced Thursday, April 2nd, by Chaz Ebert and The College of Media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Center will be programmatic in nature and nurture diverse points of view in filmmaking and film criticism, according to Dr. Jan Slater, Dean of the College of Media.
"The Ebert Center will realize Roger's dream for a crossroads of film studies, production, technology and ethics," Chaz Ebert said. "It will encourage writers and filmmakers to think as critically about movies as Roger did. It will challenge them to craft more humanitarian films and tell stories that matter. These are the values Roger lived and championed with uncommon clarity and conviction."
The announcement also kicks off a campaign to raise $5 million to support the Center, established in part from an endowment Roger and Chaz Ebert set up at his alma mater before his death. The Center will reside in and be directed by the College of Media, to better cross-pollinate with other disciplines.
"Our goal is to build on the founding commitment from Roger and Chaz and turn this into a home of exemplary film commentary and contribute to the scholarly, professional and public interest of film criticism, film history and the entertainment industries," said Slater. "It's something that wasn't here when Roger was a student and he firmly believed it should be part of this College."
"Roger said that his adult life started at the University of Illinois, and he credits his education in the College of Communications (as the College of Media was then known) with setting him on his life-long path. So I am happy that The Ebert Center will reside there," said Chaz Ebert. "The College of Media is a highly respected internationally known college whose mission is to bring scholarship, professional expertise, and social responsibility to the growing domestic and global domains of mass media. What a perfect partner for The Ebert Center."
Throughout his career, Ebert's love for movies was matched by his passion for human and civil rights. He advocated for opportunities for emerging and diverse writers and filmmakers. He earned a deep admiration and affection among moviegoers around the world. "Selma" director, Ava DuVernay, recently recalled the impact of his support for one of her first projects, "I Will Follow."
"He lifted that film from nowhere, and lifted me up with it," said DuVernay. She added that if Roger Ebert hadn't taken notice of her first two movies she doubts she would have been chosen to direct "Selma."
The Ebert Center hopes to replicate that effect many times over.
"Roger often spoke about empathy and professionalism in filmmaking and criticism. The Ebert Center is one way we will not only honor Roger's life's work," Chaz Ebert said, "but also continue it."
The Center will invite professors, writers and filmmakers from the U.S. and abroad to speak and support its initiatives, which will include awarding internships and the Ebert Fellow in Media Criticism scholarship annually to at least two undergraduate students at the U. of I. In its inaugural year, three recipients have been chosen: Shalayne Pulia, who is studying news and editorial journalism in the College of Media; Riane Lenzner-White, a College of Media student of broadcast journalism; and Ashish Valentine, who is studying English literature, text and culture.
Along with a $3,000 stipend, the students will receive mentoring by Michael Phillips, chief film critic at the Chicago Tribune. They also will have the opportunity to broaden and strengthen their storytelling skills across a broad multimedia platform, including in collaboration with the Illinois Public Media and The Daily Illini – the student newspaper beloved by Roger, its former editor.
"Roger helped so many journalists and critics at different points in their careers, myself included," Phillips said. "It's wonderful to know his spirit is behind this inaugural trio of Roger Ebert Fellows. I can't wait to see how they'll bring arts, culture, film and the world around them to life in all sorts of coverage. It's an honor to be advising them in their endeavors."
Rich Martin, head of the Department of Journalism at Urbana-Champaign, said he and Phillips were heartened by the number and the quality of applicants and decided to select three, instead of two.
"We're confident that these students will live up to the high standards that Roger exemplified in his undergraduate career at the University and in his award-winning career at the Chicago Sun-Times. And we're certain that he would be proud to have them in the first class of Ebert Fellows."
The Ebert Fellows will be recognized during the annual Ebertfest Film Festival April 15-19 at the Virginia Theater in Champaign.