Editor’s note: Roger Ebert died in Chicago on April 4, 2013. He was 70.
You were just honoured with the Webby Award as “Person of the Year,” partly for your innovative Ebert Club venture. Basically, for a small yearly fee ($5 USD), members gain exclusive access to your e-newsletter, a private forum, and a special meet-and-greet with you at Ebertfest. What was it like to receive this level of validation when some people were saying you were going about it all wrong?
I may have gone about the Ebert Club all wrong. I dreamed it up myself. Even the members say they would have paid more. I’ve hired a Club secretary, the Canadian artist and film devotee Marie Haws, who does a lot of the heavy lifting (and the art and creative) on the newsletter, so the result is a lot more than just some stuff I throw together.
Before starting the Ebert Club and your blog, you were a renowned TV personality. While your fans read your reviews online or in print, many got to know you from At the Movies. How can any other journalist or news outlet gain the same kind of following without that kind of exposure?
I realize I was lucky. But I recently wrote a blog entry, “The Golden Age of Movie Critics,” about very good critics emerging on the Web. One think that helps me is that I have a database of thousands of reviews going back 42 years, and I get maybe 200,000 visits a day from people linking to reviews from IMDb, etc. In many cases, I will have one of the few reviews of a film, or the only one.
From the comments on your blog to your Twitter followers and Ebert Club members, you’ve been able to amass a lot of information on your niche, and all without imposing a single survey on your readers. What have you learned about your audience? Who are they?
I’ve learned about them from 50,000 comments. They are very interested in movies, intelligent, and good writers. I vet every comment, and am amazed by their high quality. Perhaps 25 percent of my visitors are from foreign countries. They write better English than a lot of native speakers.
As a film critic, you’re accustomed to handling dissent from the public. Can someone like Richard Branson or any CEO of a major corporation (BP comes to mind) be expected to react to backlash in the same way that you do? How should they handle it?
Be forthright. By attempting to minimize the oil spill and improve its image, for example, BP has spent millions on PR with result of increasing distrust and suspicion. Let’s face it. Its image is screwed. They should accept that and make more of an effort to at least SEEM to tell the truth. They’re worried about the BP parody account on Twitter being mistaken for the real thing. Doesn’t that tell you something?
How much of an effort do you make to maintain your image in a public discourse? Does the idea of a “personal brand” even enter your mind?
No. “Branding” for me is like the practice of calling a city a “market.” I write, people read.
With your blog, you make a point of personally approving each comment before it’s posted. On Twitter, you play “Tweeto,” where you end the night by posting three retweets from new followers. How do you find the time to keep your followers and fans engaged?
To be quite honest, my illness has helped. Having lost my power to speak, writing is my means of communication. Twitter is like a running conversation, and is cheering to me. The blog has taken on a life of its own. I feel a real connection with its readers. I took a lot of heat over the blog about video games, and a lot of it was justified. But it generated 4,366 comments and 1.2 million words, and certainly inspired a useful discussion, because those comments are longish and thoughtful, not snark.
What are the most valuable features of news, or even film criticism?
I want to know what’s happening, and I enjoy good writing for its own sake.
Read Part I. Ebert talks about his forthcoming memoir, eBooks, and the future of print.