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Roger Ebert's continued support of Toronto film fest 'meant everything'

TORONTO – Roger Ebert was a fixture each September at the Toronto International Film Festival. And when word of his death broke Thursday, devastated festival-goers, officials and movie directors from the city took a moment to give a final thumbs up to the famed critic.

“Roger Ebert was the most important film critic in the world, and that he attended Toronto and actually loved our festival so much meant everything to us,” Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, said in a telephone interview.

“He came every year, he saw movies, he wrote about movies, he wrote about them as having premiered at Toronto, and I think he liked the fact that we were a public festival.

“He liked actually seeing movies with a public audience in Toronto, he seemed to like the vibe of the place, and in the early years he had a lot of fun in Toronto as well.”

“No one loved movies more than Roger Ebert, to whom many filmmakers and some film festivals, principally Toronto, owe a great deal for his early enthusiastic and constantly loyal support,” Helga Stephenson, CEO of the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television and former festival head, said in an email to The Canadian Press.

“Unbelievably prolific, Roger was a brilliant critic, an unabashed booster of his favourite films and talent, and a kid in the candy store all at the same time,” continued Stephenson, who ran the festival for almost two decades.

“World cinema has lost its best friend.”

Oscar-nominated filmmaker Norman Jewison said he was very sad to lose “a dear old friend and a relationship I treasured for well over 30 years.”

“The whole entertainment industry I think has lost a very significant voice,” Jewison said in a telephone interview from Malibu, Calif. “We’re going to miss the thumbs up — that’s what we’re going to miss.”

Toronto producer and filmmaker Barry Avrich called the Pulitzer Prize winner “a brand unto himself.”

“Roger represents modern film criticism at its best,” he said.

Ebert attended the festival from its early days until recent years, when he could no longer speak after having his jaw surgically removed due to cancer. He was often accompanied at press conferences by his wife, Chaz.

“He really became part of our family,” said Bailey. “He saw us grow.”

“I think the way he adopted Toronto was really significant for our film industry up there because he was always very kind to us,” noted Jewison.

“It kind of put us on the map in America and through Roger, the Toronto Film Festival became very important.”

Fans also loved his presence on the festival circuit.

“Roger Ebert loved coming to the Toronto film fest and we loved having him. He will be missed for this among many many reasons,” added Twitter user @blm849.

Said @captainpearson: “1 thing folks around here should remember about Roger Ebert is that he was a great promoter of the Toronto Film Festival and Toronto itself.”

In his last appearance at the fest a couple of years ago, Ebert conducted an online panel discussion via his laptop and social media.

Bailey said the event showed how the prolific blogger and Twitter user kept film criticism relevant by engaging with young movie lovers.

“For many years there’s been a fear that the world of writing about movies was dying as journalists were losing jobs and I think he was able to find a way to keep that relevant.”

Although Ebert loved the fest, he was also not afraid to criticize it. His anger one year at being shut out of a screening ultimately led to changes in the way the festival was run.

“The great thing about him was he demanded the best and one of the things that I think happened as we grew was that it was harder for everybody to get into films and there was sometimes a case where critics who needed to see a movie couldn’t get in,” recalled Bailey with a laugh.

“So he made a fuss about that and we listened, as we always did. You’ve got to listen to Roger Ebert.”

As a working journalist, Ebert could also be quite exacting when attending screenings in Toronto, he added.

“Famously I think he hit someone in front of him … with a rolled up magazine because somebody was disturbing the screening as it was about to start and I liked that about Roger, too,” said Bailey.

“When you were watching movies you had to be serious about watching movies. You don’t talk, you don’t go on your cellphone. You sit and you experience what the filmmakers delivered to you and he wasn’t shy about making sure that happened.”

Jewison recalled spending a memorable evening at a recent Toronto fest with Ebert and his wife.

It was at a wedding anniversary celebration for cinematographer Haskell Wexler and his wife Rita. Ebert wrote notes to communicate with them.

“We were reminiscing about films and he scribbled something down and passed it around and everybody looked at this little piece of paper, and it said: ‘Let Haskell talk, let Haskell speak,'” said Jewison, who got a personalized tour of Chicago from Ebert while prepping his film “Gaily, Gaily.”

“I was always watching his reviews specifically because they meant so much to me,” he added. “He was just so smart and he knew so much about film. So I was always very happy to get a thumbs up.”

Oscar-nominated director Atom Egoyan recalls getting two thumbs up for “The Adjuster” when it was reviewed on the influential TV show Ebert co-hosted with fellow critic Gene Siskel.

Egoyan says Ebert appreciated his avant-garde approach to filmmaking even before many local critics did.

“For a young filmmaker it was like a blessing, it was unbelievable,” said Egoyan.

“My parents knew I had made it was when I was reviewed on ‘Siskel and Ebert.’ It was a huge moment.”

Word of Ebert’s death — reported by his employer, the Chicago Sun-Times — came two days after he announced on his blog that he was undergoing radiation treatment after a recurrence of cancer.

In a 2011 email interview with The Canadian Press for his memoir, “Life Itself,” Ebert said he didn’t fear death and that writing the book had made him reflect on how lucky he’d been.

“At the time, it was simply a life — mine. Now I realize what good fortune I’ve had. And how many people helped me.”

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– With files from Canadian Press reporters Cassandra Szklarski and Nick Patch.