Let me start off by saying that I grew up as a young adult watching Siskel & Ebert on TV. But never in my wildest dreams did I think that one day, I'd make a movie that Roger would not only watch in his screening room, but end up critiquing for the public. But that's exactly what happened.
Make no mistake about it, for an independent filmmaker, Roger Ebert had the influence to put you on the map simply by turning his thumb 90 degrees upwards. When I made my first documentary, America the Beautiful, like I said, I didn't think that Roger Ebert himself would review the film. I figured that some lesser known freelance writer at the Chicago Sun-Times would have the honor.
When I got the news that Roger was going to watch the film himself and review it, my heart took a couple of really fast beats. As an independent filmmaker, your first thought is "what if he doesn't like it?" If that's the case, everyone would know it immediately, taking some of the steam out of trying to get people to see the film.
I took a couple of deep breaths and told myself that no matter what Roger thought of the film, I had to keep pushing. I was on a mission to reach as many young girls as possible with my message.
When I went to sleep Thursday night (the night before his review ran), I'll admit to being a little anxious. It's only normal when the most powerful film critic in the world is going to review your first documentary.
When I woke up Friday morning, I had over 100 text messages congratulating me on Roger's review. I immediately went online to see that he gave America the Beautiful three stars. Not only did he give it three stars, but in his review, he made the comment, "America the Beautiful is a documentary that might rescue the lives of some girls age 12 and up." Those words were so powerful that they stuck with me the rest of the day.
The film opened the night of his review at the Landmark Theater and ended up being the top grossing film that weekend at the theater complex. People were coming to the theater in droves to see the film based on his review. But wait... things were about to get better.
Two weeks after his review ran, Roger's wife Chaz called me and said that Roger wanted to do a feature story on me. I almost fainted. Right there where I stood. I stuttered some and said "Sure. Let's do it." As far as I was concerned, Roger only did feature stories on the top names in Hollywood, not guys like me.
Chaz told me to come over to their house in two days to do the interview. The drive to his house in Lincoln Park was very surreal. I couldn't believe it was happening. I got to his house and there he was, standing there with a camera in his hand. He walked me through the house and took several pictures of me before we sat down to discuss the film and my journey.
This is where things get really sweet. When his feature article came out, it prompted People magazine to do a 2 page story on the film. Because of the People magazine story, Extra and Entertainment Tonight did a story and all of a sudden, the film was legitimized in the press.
It was a most awesome ride and I'm forever grateful to Roger for deciding to do a story on me when most of the major press at the time was writing off America the Beautiful as a small documentary.
But like I said at the beginning, Roger is known for fighting for people that don't have a voice. That's why he's so loved and will be missed by so many millions of people.
I want to share with you the article that Roger did on me in the Chicago Sun-Times that literally changed my course as a filmmaker. Roger, just know, as you look down on us, smiling, while holding up your thumb, that we all love you and thank you for everything that you've given us. And thank you for being you.
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