With his passion for the movies and his thumbs-up/thumbs-down evaluations, Roger Ebert became a household name. He penned thousands of film reviews—his Chicago Sun-Times pieces were syndicated in more than 200 papers around the world—and his show was for a time the top-rated weekly syndicated half-hour on TV. The first film critic to receive a Pulitzer, he quit an English doctoral program to pursue a career as a reviewer. He wrote several screenplays and more than 20 books, including his memoir, Life Itself. In 1999, Ebert launched the annual Overlooked Film Festival showcasing forgotten/ignored movies and genres.
In June 2005, Ebert received his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and, during his trip, paid us a visit. In the transcript below of our chat, we recall his reflections on the influence and success of his work.
Tavis: I am pleased to welcome Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic Roger Ebert to this program. The popular and influential movie reviewer has been co-hosting his own popular TV series since the mid-seventies, first with the late Gene Siskel, and now with Richard Roeper. He’s here in L.A. this week to receive his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His most recent book is called ‘The Great Movies, Volume II,’ which is in stores everywhere. First of all, Mr. Ebert, an honor to meet you. Secondly, glad to have you on the program. And thirdly, congratulations on the star.
Roger Ebert: Thank you. Thank you. I enjoy your program. I enjoy your program. There needs to be more programs like yours on the air.
Tavis: That’s awfully kind. I’m not gonna say there should be more film critics because then you’d have more competition.
Ebert: The more the merrier. ‘Cause actually, a lot of the entertainment news is not film criticism. It’s just publicity and, you know, who got divorced, who’s in rehab.
Tavis: Which raises the fascinating question–I’ve got a lot more competition than you have. There are talk shows everywhere.
Ebert: Yeah, I know.
Tavis: But what is, in fact, the enduring something that’s allowed you to stay around all this time?
Ebert: You know, I think the thing that works on our show is that we review movies, and that’s what we do. We don’t interview stars. We don’t have gossip. We don’t show the new trailer of the movie that’s opening next week. We just say here’s a new movie, and we review it, and we get off the beaten path–not just the big movies, like ‘Batman Begins,’ but also little movies like ‘Me and You and Everyone We Know.’ Smaller films that people might not hear about. ‘The March of the Penguins,’ ‘The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill.’ And people, now that they’re using their DVD machines, are more curious about reaching out to some of these other films. They’re hungry for new ideas for what to rent and what to look at.
Tavis: I want to talk about the impact of the DVD in just a second. Before I do that, though, I don’t want to move so fast past this star. That’s such a huge honor to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Ebert: I’m amazed.
Tavis: What did you make of this when you heard that you’re gonna get a star?
Ebert: I was astonished. And people think I got it for being a film critic. Actually, I got it for being on television for 30 years. And not very many people have been in the same format for that long. And certainly I hope that Gene Siskel gets a posthumous star one of these years because we had a great run together, and now Richard Roeper is a great partner. But I’ve been on TV for 30 years, so that’s why they gave me the star.
Tavis: How was that–so if I last 30 years, does that mean I automatically get a star?
Ebert: I should think so. You probably deserve one right now.
Tavis: Yeah, I doubt that. I doubt that very seriously. How did you navigate that–what I assume, at least, was a difficult transition?
Ebert: It was. We did the show twice with me by myself, and that did not work. Did not work because the whole thing about the show is give and take. It would be like you doing an interview with an empty chair. Can’t be done.
Tavis: Well, I talk to myself all the time, but that’s not at issue.
Ebert: On the other hand, how good are your answers?
Tavis: Exactly. And the ratings aren’t so good, but that’s another issue.
Ebert: So what we did, we had about 35 guest hosts–some of them more than once–would come in and do the show. Some great people. And eventually the one that we settled on was Richard Roeper, who worked for my paper, for the Chicago Sun-Times. So my wife said, ‘You ought to have Roeper on.’ I said, ‘I can’t have him. He works for the Sun-Times.’ and she said, ‘What difference does that make?’ And she was right because Roeper has turned out to be a terrific co-host, and we get along well, and we talk well, and he knows a lot about movies.
Tavis: Two questions relative to that specifically. How did you become such–I mean, we all love good movies, but how did you become such a lover of film, number one? And how did you– I know a lot of kids watching want to know this–somebody asked me this question the other day. I get asked it all the time. I got asked the other day. How did you, Tavis–how did you end up with a talk show? How did you end up being such a lover of movies, and how did you end up becoming the quintessential movie critic?
Ebert: Well, lover of movies… My hometown, Champaign-Urbana, they had a big fight over who was gonna get the TV license. And so even though I’m not that old, I grew up in a childhood that did not have television. And we went downtown to the Princess Theater and the other theaters in town; saw the double features. I grew up on movies. I love them. Had an aunt who took me to all the movies, too. And so I grew up loving movies, and at the University of Illinois, I went to the film society. I went to the local art theater. It just became part of my life. And as to how I became a film critic, people ask you a career question expecting to find out how they’re going to get to do it…
Ebert: And what they find out is how you did it.
Ebert: And that doesn’t help them. How did I get to be a film critic? I was a feature writer at the Chicago Sun-Times while I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago. The film critic retired, and they gave me the job. So I really don’t have any idea how, you know. And it was good luck.
Tavis: Yeah. I was ready for a great story, and it’s just ‘The guy retired. They gave me the job.’
Ebert: I had written about movies before for the Sun-Times and elsewhere, but I was not aiming at that job, and it just fell out of the sky, into my hands.
Tavis: Is it fair that you get a chance to do this? In other words, is it fair that a movie comes out, and because Roger Ebert says it stinks, thumbs down, people who respect your opinion either don’t give the movie a chance–they don’t go check–is that fair? Is that right?
Ebert: Actually, I wish that film critics in general had more influence, because if you really look at what drives the box office, it’s advertising more than anything else. Trailers, ads on TV. And when my thumb is up or down, that means very little as opposed to a $30 million advertising campaign. And what I’m trying to do, basically, is not tell people what they should do. The good critic never says what you would like or wouldn’t like because I don’t know what you would like. I just say what I like and why. I try to say why in such a way that you can make up your own mind.
There was an executive once who I said, ‘How come you give us these ‘Friday the 13th’ clips to review on the show when you know we’re gonna hate all of those movies?’ He says, ‘You show a clip from ‘Friday the 13th’ on your show, and you two guys say it stinks, and a lot of people at home will see the clip and say, oh, great, another ‘Friday the 13th’ movie.’ Of course, they expect us to say it stinks, but it still sells tickets.
Ebert: So in a way it’s news. It’s just news.
Tavis: That’s a fascinating anecdote ’cause I was just about to ask you how you interpret–and you don’t do it for this particular reason, but when Roger Ebert does give the thumbs up, everybody takes that and runs it in their ads in the newspaper. So when I’m going through the newspaper looking for what I want to see, I always look to see what Ebert and Roeper gave it, or Ebert and Siskel, back in the day. Because you guys are the two big willies, I always look, just out of curiosity, to see what they said.
Ebert: The two big…
Tavis: Two big willies. That’s Ebonics. Don’t worry about it.
Ebert: I think I…
Tavis: South side of Chicago, they’ll clue you in.
Ebert: I think it translates pretty well. I like it a lot.
Tavis: You guys are the two big willies, so I’m, like, ‘What did they say about this?’ but it occurred to me one day, when you guys do give thumbs up, they jump on that, and they use that as a part of their sales pitch.
Ebert: The advantage to that is–’cause I was a film critic long before I was on television.
Ebert: You know, they have a way of selecting words–lifting words out of a review.
Tavis: I’ve noticed that. Is that what that dot-dot-dot is?
Ebert: You could say ‘It’s astonishingly bad,’ and it comes out ‘Astonishing.’
Ebert: At least if we give it 2 thumbs up, or one of us gives it thumbs up, it can’t be misquoted.
Ebert: So at least you know, yes, Ebert liked it, or Ebert and Roeper liked it. So at least it’s not going to be misinterpreted.
Tavis: All right. DVD, you mentioned earlier. The box office for Hollywood is in a slump.
Ebert: It is.
Tavis: Some would attribute that to the advent of the DVD. Not just the advent. These things come out like 2 days after the movie hit.
Ebert: Well, DVDs are popular. Video games are kind of off the radar. Now, television, mass media hasn’t really covered video games because it’s too complicated. A really good video game can go down 20, 30, 40 layers. There’s no way to really review it except to just show one sample scene or something. Video games are big, and DVDs are big, but actually the box office slumped this year–if you look year to year, from last year to this year, you’ll find the movies aren’t the same.
I mean, the weekend that ‘Spiderman II’ opened last year, this year we got…I think it was ‘Monster-In-Law.’ You know, so it’s not gonna do ‘Spiderman II’ business. And so it’s not that the box office slumped, it’s that they didn’t have a blockbuster for that weekend. Some of the movies, like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Batman Begins,’ it’s not going through the roof, but it’s certainly up in the attic somewhere. And Hollywood, I know, is concerned. And my advice is people like to go to the movies, they like to go to theaters. They want to go to something that excites them, and this has not been a real exciting summer.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that. I wonder, just beyond this summer–I’ve gone on your web site, which I want to reference in just a second on my little handy blue card here. But I wonder whether or not–well, you can feel this, obviously: Is your thumb staying up more these days, or staying down more? Is stuff getting worse or better?
Ebert: It’s interesting because on the web site I review most of everything. All kinds of movies. On TV we review movies that are basically in national release, and there are more movies than we can review. We tend to want to review movies that we tend to want to recommend. If it’s a big movie and we don’t like it, we’ll review it. If it’s a little movie and we don’t like it, we won’t bother with it. So that there’s a little statistical thing going on that aims toward more thumbs up, even though there may be thumbs-down movies out there that we’re not getting to. On the web site, I think it stays about the same.
Tavis: Jonathan. Right here, Jonathan. Has your thumb ever done this?
Ebert: I wish it would. You see, in the newspaper I give 1 to 4 stars. 3 stars means yes, 2 1/2 stars means no. And if I had a 5-star system, I would have a middle position.
And sometimes, you know, there’s that kind of movie. Well, it’s not that good, it’s not that bad. You know, I wish I had a middle position, but I don’t.
So we have the concept on TV where you’re talking about the affectionate thumbs down…or the marginal thumbs down, whatever that means. I mean, the thumbs are so gradated that they should have a dial for them.
Tavis: For those who’ve missed, or might have missed in this summer travel season some of your reviews of late, let me throw some names at you right quick, and top-line ’em for me. You gave this to ‘Batman Begins.’
Ebert: Yes, I did. It’s the first Batman movie I liked, except for one of the animated films, actually. Animated Batman. This was the first of the 5 big Batman films that I’ve liked, and I thought it was terrific. It’s right up there with ‘Spiderman II’ from last year as being a superhero movie that really does deliver in terms of what we feel about that superhero.
Tavis: You gave this to ‘Cinderella Man.’
Ebert: Yes, I did. I was surprised it didn’t do better at the box office. Maybe the title was wrong. Maybe the fact that he threw that telephone wasn’t a good idea. That movie is such a good performance by Russell Crowe, and such a nice man.
Tavis: I’ve not seen it, but I’ve heard about that. But I’ve also been in conversation with folk about the fact that they were surprised it didn’t do better, either, because boxing–Hollywood seems to love boxing movies.
Ebert: Well, yeah. And look at ‘Million Dollar Baby,’ how well that did. I’m surprised. I think it’ll probably find an audience on DVD. It’s a very good movie.
Tavis: I love Cedric the Entertainer. He’s a personal friend of mine.
Ebert: OK, now, I liked that movie.
Tavis: Hold the phone. I’m going there. I love him. He’s a personal friend of mine. He was on this show to promote his movie. But some more Ebonics for you, that movie didn’t bust a grape.
Ebert: Was it peeled, the grape?
Tavis: You gave it a thumbs up.
Ebert: I did.
Tavis: ‘The Honeymooners,’ we’re talking about.
Ebert: I’m gonna tell you I’m surprised at the negative opinions about that film. You’ve heard about that web site The Tomato Meter, where they evaluate it? It got, like, a 15 on the tomato meter. 85% of the critics hated it. I liked it. I thought that Mike Epps and Cedric the Entertainer were not trying to do Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, that they had their own angle. It was sweet, it was int–I loved the whole business of racing the greyhound. That was funny.
Tavis: Yeah, that was funny. I liked it.
Ebert: And Leguizamo was very funny as the so-called dog trainer, or dog whisperer. Come on, I’ll bet if people were to go to see that movie…
Tavis: They’d laugh.
Ebert: You hated it, though, right?
Tavis: No. I loved it.
Ebert: Oh, you did love it. Oh, I didn’t get that.
Tavis: I ain’t got a problem with it. I’m just saying it didn’t bust a grape. That’s all I’m saying.
Ebert: Oh, OK, OK. Well, I’m glad that we agree because it was a nice movie, wasn’t it?
Tavis: It was a very nice movie.
Ebert: What was bad about it?
Tavis: Nothing. It was a great movie.
Ebert: OK. Thank you.
Tavis: You give it thumbs up; I go see it, that’s how it works.
Tavis: Roger Ebert, we congratulate on his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Nice to meet you.
Ebert: You bet.