Unlike typical film festivals, Ebertfest does not accept submissions. Roger Ebert, the TV and Chicago Sun-Times film critic selects films for the festival which in his opinion are excellent, but have been overlooked by the public or by film distribution companies. All films are selected from those that Ebert sees in the course of his normal reviewing work.
The original purpose of the Overlooked Film Festival, as reflected in the name, was to showcase films that had not been given enough attention by the public, film critics, or even distributors. Ebert has cheerfully admitted that he can bend the definition of "overlooked" to accommodate any film that he would like to include, since entire genres and formats can be overlooked as well as individual films. The selection philosophy is expected to continue, but with the name change there will no longer be a need to come up with a pretext for including any film.
In most years the festival has included a film in the 70 mm format. The films may be major releases, like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Patton, or less well-known, like 2005's showing of the French film Playtime. These films were all chosen primarily due to their use of the 70mm process, which Ebert feels is overlooked.
Each year a silent film is shown with live orchestral accompaniment (usually by the Alloy Orchestra). The films selected are generally well-known (for example, Nosferatu), but Ebert feels that silent films in general are overlooked by the majority of moviegoers. The festival also strives to include a musical film for the same reason.
At the festival before each screening Roger Ebert will make a few introductory remarks. After the film is shown he will have a discussion on stage with the filmmakers or others connected with the film, sometimes hosting a brief panel discussion.
Twelve to fourteen films are presented at each festival, opening with a single film on a Wednesday night and concluding with a single movie the following Sunday. On each day during the interim four films are presented.
Ebertfest is held at the Virginia Theatre, an old time movie palace in Champaign, Illinois and now owned by the Champaign Park District. Ebert often speaks of having attended films at the Virginia while growing up in Champaign-Urbana and attending the University.
The festival is a direct descendant of a program put on at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1997 called "Cyberfest" which used the supposed birthday of HAL (the computer in the 2001 film) to highlight the University's involvement in the history of computers and computing. The film was to be shown as part of Cyberfest, Roger Ebert had agreed to host and actor Gary Lockwood was a special guest. It was suggested that the film should ideally be shown as it was originally, in 70 mm format. The original plan was to have the screening at the University's performing arts center but time constraints vs. the need to install projection equipment and elaborate 6 channel sound made this impossible. Someone suggested looking at the Virginia Theatre as 70 mm films had been shown there in the past. At this point the theatre was in the hands of a local live theatre group and had not run films since sold by a theatre chain. All concerned were pleasantly surprised to learn the chain had left behind not only what is reputed to be the finest 35/70 mm projector made but also the screen and speakers. The rest of the equipment was brought in for the special showing which went perfectly.
Since that time, through generous donations, the Virginia has been able to fully equip its projection and sound system with a second projector, the latest in digital sound equipment and top quality lenses.
Instrumental in these upgrades has been notable Chicago-based projection expert James Bond who doubles as one of the projectionists during the festival. The other projectionist is Steven Kraus, whose primary occupation is running a private screening room in Chicago used by studios to preview films for critics.