From The Published Archives: Roger Ebert Publicly Responds To Two Of My Movie Answer Man Questions

Roger Ebert has been a film critic for The Chicago Sun-Times for almost 45 years now.  Despite numerous bouts with cancer, previous issues with obesity and alcoholism, the inability to chew and digest solid foods, several surgeries, a shrinking body, a missing jaw, restricted mobility and the complete lack of a speaking voice, he continues to screen and critique cinematic offerings on a full-time basis.  Not only that, he also blogs about various topics, continues to oversee the annual Ebertfest film festival as well as his new PBS show, and is currently putting together his memoirs.  I greatly envy his work ethic.

Because of his high profile TV gig with the much missed Gene Siskel in the 70s, 80s and 90s, Ebert has no doubt been asked thousands of questions about film.  Sometime in the 1990s (unless I’m mistaken), he started a bi-weekly Sunday Sun-Times column called The Movie Answer Man in an effort to answer these voluminous written queries.

Over the years, I’ve sent him five such questions (if I’m remembering correctly), two of which were published in edited form in two separate MAM columns in 2004.  Unfortunately, I don’t have print copies of them but thankfully, they’ve been posted on as individual entries separate from the action packed columns they were a part of.

The first one was printed on May 2, 2004 and if my memory is good, it was the last question posed in that particular column.  (A month before its release, Ebert personally emailed me an early, less detailed reply, as well.)  As you will see, I was a bit confused about this business of full-screen and widescreen.

Back in 2000, when I started to get caught up with movies after a few years of depressing inactivity, because I had a 13″ Television set and no DVD player, almost all the films I watched in my room were VHS cassettes that filled the entire screen.

Deep down I knew I wasn’t seeing the complete images of these movies that were first shown in theatres but prior to the late autumn of 2001 I had very little choice.  Very few tapes were available for rent or borrowing in the proper aspect ratio.  And in those rare instances where I could see something in widescreen, the picture looked even smaller, even though nothing was sacrificed.  (The subtitled moments on Pearl Harbor were particularly difficult to read.)

A year and a half before I submitted my question to Ebert, I finally began the long overdue process of phasing out full-screen screenings.  (I had begun renting widescreen DVDs in September 2001 but continued to watch full-screen tapes.)  It may have been a Movie Answer Man column, I’m not sure now, but I remember reading a response to a reader who was defending full-screen.

Ebert sounded so angry that it convinced me once and for all that unless a movie was filmed to fit your screen, it’s best to stick with widescreen.  His argument made sense to me.

When I bought my first PC in the spring of 2001 (which included a DVD-ROM drive), this became a lot easier.  By the start of 2003, almost everything I watched was in the proper aspect ratio which remains my screening policy today.  (It also helps that I now have a much bigger TV set with a build-in DVD player.  It’s a good thing, too, since my computer speakers started to act up  in early 2009 during the first 10 minutes of the original Wes Craven flick, The Hills Have Eyes (I watched the rest of it on my TV), and the PC itself was unusuable later that summer.)

The second question was published with a response on December 26, 2004.  It concerns the Best Documentary Feature category and how one of the announced finalists (which eventually got a nomination and lost) wasn’t released in the current year.

Ebert posed my query to an Academy Of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences bigwig (Executive Director Bruce Davis who will soon leave the post) who gave a very interesting answer.  As you’ll see, at the time, documentaries had a different timeline of eligibility than any other type of movie.

Seven years after this was publicly sorted out for me, The Academy finally announced they were making a change.  For the next round of nominations the timeline will be extended to include the entirety of the current year plus the last four months of 2010.  For the 2013 ceremony and every one thereafter (unless they make another rule revision), the year of eligibility will be the same as Best Picture.  In other words, January 1 to December 31.

So, what were the other three questions I asked Ebert that weren’t answered publicly in his column?  One concerned the lack of a Best Animated Feature nomination for Final Fantasy, I do believe, another was a response to another question from a reader about Blockbuster Video’s stupid (yet thankfully discarded) anti-widescreen policy (which, to his credit, he personally replied to by email) and the other involved Gene Siskel.

When they did their Top 10 Films of 1998 show, Roger picked Dark City as his favourite.  Gene didn’t like it when they reviewed it earlier in the year but because of his sparring partner’s enthusiasm for it on their Best Of program, he vowed to give it another chance.  I simply asked Roger if Gene did, in fact, rescreen that movie before he died in February 1999 and if so, did he change his mind.  I still want to know.

Movie Answer Man

Roger Ebert / May 2, 2004

Q. Why is it that films released before the 1950s are not available on DVD in widescreen? I realize this was the pre-Cinemascope era, but weren’t the old movie screens rectangular rather than square like the TV sets?

I ask because the double-disc version of “Casablanca” (for which you provided a commentary) is only available in “standard” form. The recent Chaplin reissues are also full-screen only, not to mention “Gone With the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Birth of a Nation” and countless others. Why would you participate in a DVD project that would not showcase your favorite film the way it was shown in the cinemas?
Dennis Earl, Hamilton, Ontario

A. The widescreen format was not introduced until 1954. Before that, virtually ALL movies were shot in the ratio of 1:1.33. That’s not square, and neither is your TV set, but four units wide for every three units high.

The movies you mention are presented correctly on those videos. If they were wide-screen, that would involve chopping off some of the top and bottom of the original picture — an experiment that was actually tried with “Gone With the Wind” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” with disastrous results.

Movie Answer Man

BY ROGER EBERT FILM CRITIC / December 26, 2004

Q. The Motion Picture Academy recently announced the top 12 contenders for the 2004 best documentary Feature category. One of the finalists is “Tupac: Resurrection,” which was released in 2003. Call me crazy but I thought to be eligible for a documentary Oscar this year, your film must be released between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 of this year. How did a film that came out November 2003 get nominated this year?

Dennis Earl, Hamilton, Ontario

A. Bruce Davis, executive director of the Motion Picture Academy, replies: “The feature and short documentary categories, along with a couple of others that involve heavy viewing loads for the groups determining the nominations, have always had a different eligibility year from the ‘standard’ categories. With last year’s shift of our show date into February, the difference has become even greater: though the calendar year remains the eligibility period for dramatic features, the year for documentaries runs from Sept. 1 to Aug. 31. ‘Tupac’ didn’t become eligible until the current (77th) Awards year.”

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Wednesday, July 6, 2011
10:05 p.m.

Published in: on July 6, 2011 at 10:05 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I’m wondering if I might have seen those letters reprinted in the various yearbooks he’s done. They feel very familiar, Dennis.

    Before DVDs came in, there was a trend for a few years to release movies in the letterbox format on VHS too; a fair amount of my VHS collection is like that, though I’m much happier now with DVD. I love having the full picture as it should be presented.

    Mr. Ebert’s one of my favourite reviewers, and despite the ravages that have been done on his health, that bright mind is still very much there.

    • That’s cool. I’ve always wondered if all the questions I submitted ended up being printed and answered in any one of his books. Will have to investigate that. My Dad enjoyed buying widescreen tapes for a time, as well. Now he’s all-in on DVD. Thanks for the comment.

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