This year, Susan Wloszczyna is spending some of her time at the 2015 Roger Ebert's Overlooked Film Festival trying to get to know some of the people who made the journey to Champaign-Urbana this year.
An online service like Netflix might seem the antithesis of the majestic movie-viewing experience provided by the restored ‘20s-era Virginia Theatre, home to Ebertfest.
But it was that very streaming outlet that first brought Stan Lanning of Santa Cruz, Calif., 59, to the event in 2006 for the first time.
“I’ve worked at Netflix for 16 years,” says Lanning. “Yeah, I’m an old-timer.”
His job duties were the initial reason for the visit to Champaign, Ill. “Netflix was trying to work out a deal with Ebert and his TV show. So the company kicked in some money for this and there were tickets floating around that I found out about. And nobody was interested. And I just thought this is absurd. So I leaped at the chance and went on the company’s dime. “
Nothing came out of trying to strike a deal with the TV show, but Lanning has been paying his own way to the festival ever since.
“That year opened with ‘My Fair Lady,’ ” he recalls. “I don’t like musicals, but I loved that movie. The theater. The quality of the projection. It was just awe-inspiring. Wonderful. And a series of other films that all kind of fade in memory at that point. I loved the atmosphere.”
But one particular chance encounter back then sealed the deal on his annual returns. “The clincher was, as I was leaving the theater, Chaz kind of jumped out into the hallway, grabbed a hold of me and gave me a hug. And she’s like a bulldozer, a force of nature. And when she wraps her arms around you, you’re committed for life. So that hug has paid dividends.”
Like many attendees, Lanning appreciates the unique atmosphere at Ebertfest. “My only real experience with movie festivals is this and, for a while, Netflix again was paying to send people to Sundance. And so having gone to Sundance for three or four years, the experience here is completely different. It’s relaxed. It’s intimate even though that theater is huge. You’re not forced to pick and choose among a massive catalog of things. I appreciate the fact that the movies are culled and selected for you.”
One of the high points was a personal backroom tour by the festival’s master projectionist, James Bond (yes, that is his name). “He is so proud of it all. The technology is wonderful. I still remember how beautiful ‘My Fair Lady’ was in 70mm. You forget sitting at home watching Netflix on a TV screen just how beautiful things can be. Occasionally, you do want a challenge. You do want to be awed by what you see.”