Ebert's last act — reinventing himself as a digital ninja at a time when his peers were retiring, getting fired and relegated to the past — was his most extraordinary
It was March 2009 when Roger Ebert popped up on my email.
“What do you think about Twitter?” the critic, who died of cancer on Thursday, asked me out of the blue.
What did I know? All I knew was that it was the new internet plaything that had everyone buzzing. Roger, who I knew mainly by his outsized reputation and his famous thumbs, was mulling whether he should start an account. He wanted my view as another legacy print journalist who had just jumped into the digital deep end with TheWrap.
Should he leave the Chicago Sun-Times, where he'd spent four-plus decades, he pondered? Could he become a standalone brand in the brave new world of the internet, as newspapers fired their critics, one by one?
Yes, he could. Roger Ebert accomplished a lot in his long life — TV shows, a Pulitzer Prize, numerous books and thousands of entertaining print reviews. But to my mind, his last act — reinventing himself as a digital ninja at a time when his peers were retiring, getting laid off and being relegated to an irrelevant past — was the most extraordinary of them all.
First, Roger started sending me screen grabs of his traffic – his page views, his monthly uniques. He wrote me:
I will stay with the Sun-Times until the end, which may never come, although thinks [sic] look bleak. At that point, I will need to find a new home. I own all of my content, and have the database and HTML on a disc. According to the way IMDb and MRQE rank most-requested movie reviews, I am the most popular critic on the web. Guess who seems to be second? James Berardinelli.
The following year he sent me a screen grab of his tweet, furious that Variety appeared to be firing all of its critics. “Hello Hollywood Reporter,” he tweeted. At the time, he had 100,000 or so followers.
But then he went to school on the medium's best practices and built his following to close to 1 million.
All as he struggled against the vagaries of his illness. It was one of those crazy ironies of life: as Roger Ebert lost his ability to speak, he found a new voice on Twitter. He didn't just tweet about a movie he'd seen or an interview he'd done or his latest movie review. Roger took to tweeting like a full-time job, finding Mark Twain quotes or quirky statistics to share. He used the 140-character format as a discipline that allowed his wit and wisdom to shine. (For a look at some of his best tweets, read Jethro Nededog here.)
And he was really good at it. (You don't get to nearly 1 million followers unless you are.) Even as his body withered, his sharp intellect and keen sense of humor was vibrantly alive inside the man.
Within the Hollywood community, Roger Ebert was a fixture. The industry will feel empty without him. Film festivals will not be the same without him. (Especially Cannes, where three years ago he gave a Bronx-inspired salute to the French security guard who wouldn't let us into the press room at the Palais de Festival. See photo by me) But there's a comfort in knowing that Roger Ebert lived every inch of life, fully, to the very end.
God bless, Roger, and rest in peace.