Note to Self: Buy Ebertfest tickets earlier

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 4/24/2008)

During spring break a realization struck me like a blast from Anton Chigurh’s cattle gun: I need tickets
to Ebertfest. To sit among esteemed film critics; to watch movies overlooked by the Academy; to catch
glimpses of the cast and crew in the audience — these experiences don’t come every day.

So I made a few phone calls, including this one:

“Hi. My name’s Jeff Brandt. I’m a student at U of I, and I’m interested in joining the wait list for
Ebertfest passes.”

“HAHAHA,” cackled the ordained guardian of the sacred festival passes. “You must be joking. First
of all, you’ll never get a pass because there are already,” the guardian mumbled, counting to seven,
“over 9000 people on this waiting list. Besides, college kids shouldn’t buy festival passes. Those are
for real adults. Your kind should only buy individual tickets.”

“Geepers,” I said. “I just wanted to give it a shot.” I hung up and cried myself to sleep.

OK, I’m exaggerating. I did, however, find out that I inquired far too late and that students rarely ask about purchasing festival passes. But why should that be the case? Splitting one pass with friends seems reasonable. We could all pitch in and pick three or four films apiece. Instead, the passes ran out without me even knowing they were for sale.

And so I began to wonder, are the organizers of this festival doing enough to promote it to students? Asking fellow undergrads about their opinions of Ebertfest produced revealing answers.

Ben Sands, junior in LAS, told me he didn’t know anything about the festival. That’s right: nothing.

Lizzie Blaine, also a junior in LAS, said, “I’ve heard my friends talk about it, but I’ve never gone. It’s just too expensive.” When I asked if she ever noticed any kind of advertising for Ebertfest on campus, she replied, “Not besides in the buzz.” Touché.

Finally I contacted Brittany Serenbetz, a freshman in LAS majoring in cinema studies. She plans to volunteer at the festival through Illini Film and Video. She became interested in the event when a family friend and annual festival-goer recommended attending. Aha! Tickets and passes sell out quickly not just due to hordes of curious locals and student-cinephiles, but also because of the event’s appeal to willing travelers.

Tim Newcomb, a professor in English and cinema studies, confirmed that notion.

“[Ebertfest] has become so popular in the region (including Chicago) that most tickets are sold as part of a festival-wide package,” Newcomb said. “Not many single tickets, which are what most students would want, are left.”

That sucks. But the implications of what he said next suck more.

“This [situation] is unfortunate, but at least it results from the overall success of the festival.”

Hey, I’m thrilled that Ebertfest is a success, and I don’t doubt that its fame is a boon to this community. Nevertheless, I do not believe that its achievement should come at the expense of losing enthusiastic college students as an audience. Without the high reputation the University of Illinois has gained on account of its excellent students, CU would have a much harder time attracting film festivals.

Many students would love to attend, but by the time the local media covers Ebert’s Film Festival, they might have already missed the boat. Sure, they could take the risk of waiting in the rush ticket line for half-an-hour, hoping that not all the sponsors and pass-holders show, but with looming exams, dwindling bank accounts and little time or money to spare, they stay home and try to remember for next time. A year passes. The cycle repeats. If only the festival had been advertised earlier and more widely.
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