Ebertfest director Kohn’s film career began at Illinois
For Nate Kohn (BS ’69, LAS; MS ’72, journalism; PhD ’95, ICR/communications), filmmaker, professor at the University of Georgia, and director of Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, film has always been an essential part of life and a medium with the potential to connect and educate everyone, regardless of background.
Kohn is an award-winning film producer, having worked on Zulu Dawn, starring Burt Lancaster and Peter O’Toole; the independent film Somebodies, which premiered at Sundance (2006); Rain, the Bahamas’ first indigenous feature, which premiered at Toronto (2007); and the documentary Bayou Maharajah, which premiered at SXSW (2013) and is available on Amazon Prime. He was executive producer on the BET television series Somebodies (2008), which was based on his independent film. He has served on juries and mentored screenwriters at the Atlanta, Hawaii, Kerala, and Bahamas international film festivals. He is the author of the book Pursuing Hollywood: Seduction, Obsession, Dread. Inspired by his work with Ebertfest, he started a film festival at the University of Georgia with Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies, which ran for about 10 years. Clearly, film is his passion.
Kohn’s impressive resume as a filmmaker and academic was an adventure founded at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Born and raised in Urbana, Illinois, Kohn began his career in film while completing his master’s degree in radio and television at Illinois. He established the Cinema Guild, a student organization dedicated to showing and making films on campus. The club showed movies regularly to student audiences as fundraisers and made films in a variety of genres, from documentaries to full-length features.
The Cinema Guild’s beginnings coincided with an important historical moment for the University. The Vietnam War led to protests on colleges across America, so it was natural that some of the first documentaries that the club produced in the late ’60s and early ’70s depicted student unrest on campus about the war. However, Kohn believes that today’s student filmmakers live in equally inspiring times.
“You really have to understand how to tell a story visually and then have stories to tell that are meaningful,” Kohn said. “Everyone has stories to tell. You also have to believe in yourself and that your lived experiences are important and worth telling in movies.”
It was from the Cinema Guild’s early short documentaries, shot on 16mm film, that Kohn began honing his shooting and editing skills through longer documentary films and then feature-length films.
The on-campus culmination of Kohn’s growth as a filmmaker was the 1973 action-thriller, Shot, his first feature film production. Working with fellow student Mitch Brown, and a full cast and crew from the University of Illinois, Shot follows two detectives as they bring down a drug kingpin in the gritty suburban Midwest. Albeit a movie with amateur filmmaking sensibilities, the Cinema Guild managed to produce a film with helicopter shots, stunts, and car demolition for a budget of $15,000 funded by their campus film showings. Shot was photographed around campus and Urbana-Champaign locations that would be familiar to alumni and is still available (with commentary) from the video distribution company Vinegar Syndrome. The movies created with the Cinema Guild at the University of Illinois were Kohn’s first efforts at being a filmmaker and producer, and the start of a career that led him to produce big-budget Hollywood films with A-list actors.
Kohn has been the director of the University of Illinois’ own Roger Ebert’s Film Festival (Ebertfest) since it was founded in 1999. Kohn had originally met Ebert at Urbana High School.
“He was several years ahead of me. I think he was a senior—and editor of the newspaper—when I was a freshman, so I at least met him then.”
But Kohn got to know Ebert well in 1997, when Kohn was producing a festival called Cyberfest for the University and Ebert was approached to host various aspects of that event.
Of their evolving collaboration, Kohn remembers, “It was easy and fun. He was always immediately available to me, and we chatted often about choosing films and inviting guests.” Kohn remembers the Ebert of those first conversations as, “smart, efficient, funny, understanding, and a joy to work with.”
It was at Cyberfest that the possibility of creating a continuing film festival at Illinois materialized. After the success of their first Ebertfest in 1999, the current annual event coalesced, now with 21 installments to date. Nate is still excited about what the next film festival might bring. The 22nd annual Ebertfest will now happen at the Virginia Theater in Champaign on April 14-17, 2021 (after the coronavirus pandemic suspended their 2020 dates).
“The festival really hasn’t changed much since we started—we kind of lucked out on a good formula,” Kohn said. The Ebertfest formula certainly has earned it a loyal following. Each year, Ebertfest draws in people from all over the world. Although the festival is smaller than many, its intimacy creates a unique experience that allows the audience to interact with the writers, directors, actors, and producers of the films they observe.
“Audience members get to see filmmakers up close and get to talk to them, and it’s sort of one of the reasons Roger wanted to do the festival in the first place,” Kohn said. “He wanted to basically educate the audience on what good film is, and you know we still do that. And, by still doing that, not only are we broadening the perspectives of the audience, we are giving them the opportunity to see and meet the people who make those films, and we think that’s very important.”
—Lauren Provencher, junior in global studies, and Faith Washington, senior in communication