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Chris Hicks: Roger Ebert gave the Sundance Film Festival a boost in its early stages

Given the health issues with which Roger Ebert struggled for years, which robbed him of his distinctive voice and which ultimately took his life last week, it may seem odd to admit that I was a bit stunned to read of his death.

Like so many other fans, I read his blog last Wednesday about his recurring cancer and that he was cutting back on the number of reviews he would be writing for his Chicago Sun-Times website. But the piece sounded quite optimistic, pointing to the many projects he was developing, so that death did not seem at all imminent.

He even wrote, “I am not going away.” Sadly, it was a promise he could not keep.

My connection with Roger dates back to the early 1980s and was strictly professional, although he did send me a nice personal email five years ago after I wrote a column about how his movie-review TV show with Gene Siskel literally gave me my 13-year career at KSL from 1982-95.

In the email, he thanked me and said he remembered our association at the Sundance Film Festival. Given all the people with whom Roger rubbed shoulders at all of the festivals and other events he attended over the years, I was surprised by that, and, I must confess, somewhat flattered.

We first met in the early ’80s through the festival but before it carried the Sundance brand. Roger became a big booster for the annual Park City event and helped it gain national recognition as a showcase for American independent cinema.

We saw each other there often during the ’80s and ’90s, and I interviewed him several times for both the Deseret News and KSL. He was always gracious and friendly and, as you would expect, a terrific interview.

We first met by phone when I called him to chat about his being on the dramatic competition jury for the January 1981 festival, the event’s third year and its first in Park City, when it was still the United States Film and Video Festival. He was at his Sun-Times desk working but was affable and friendly over the phone and didn’t hurry the conversation. We then met face-to-face during the festival proper and he was just as amiable in person.

That year he wrote that with its emphasis on unknown independent filmmakers, the Park City event was the best festival he’d ever attended — which is really something coming from a guy who was going to the Cannes Film Festival every year.

For the 1982 Park City festival, Roger was again on the dramatic competition jury and had also joined the board of directors. In addition, he participated on a panel or two.

In January of 1983, Roger signed on to judge the dramatic entries again — and the festival coordinators must have been a bit hard up for other jurors because they called on me to join him. The festival’s program director, Lawrence Smith, was also on hand to, as I later wrote, “break up disputes.” But there weren’t any, really.

Not that we were completely on the same page. Roger wanted “Purple Haze,” a remarkable re-creation of the 1960s with a bouncy soundtrack of what we now call “classic rock” songs. I wanted “Chan Is Missing,” a very low-budget comedy-drama filmed in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

“Purple Haze” won the award but we gave “Chan Is Missing” and another wonderful little film we both loved, “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,” special jury prizes.

We weren’t really that far apart on “Purple Haze,” and I had no complaints. Besides, it was never a Siskel & Ebert-style throwdown for the camera. It was two enthusiastic film buffs exchanging opinions in private. We both loved movies and we both knew it, and the give-and-take was great fun, and for me, a real privilege.

We met a few more times in the years to come and Roger was always personable and always remembered me.

A lot of other people have expounded over the past week about Roger’s many contributions to film criticism and movies at large, and all I can do is nod in agreement.

Even without his TV presence over the past few years he amassed an enormous following on his website and his writing was as crisp and bright and personal as ever right up to the end.

At a time when the Internet has made movie reviews a dime-a-dozen commodity and their impact has been marginalized at best, it’s no overstatement to say that Roger’s thoughtful analysis and wonderful writing style will be greatly missed.

And whatever his own humanist views, I like to think Roger has been reunited with Gene Siskel, who died in 1999, for a few more thumbs-up/thumbs-down debates, and is enjoying being able to once again verbalize them.