Not too long ago on a popular internet forum, a foreigner asked the question: "Why is Roger Ebert such a popular movie critic?"
It's a valid question, to be sure; it's not like Ebert was the only movie critic out there. And he wasn't the most scholarly or--at least in the eyes of New York intellectuals--not even the most respected. And yet when you say "movie reviewer," the one name that immediately pops into your mind is Roger Ebert.
There are several reasons for this, the first and most obvious being At the Movies, a weekly television program where Ebert, along with longtime co-host Gene Siskel (who died in 1999). Being piped into everyone's living rooms and staying there for nearly 20 years (in some form or another) established him and Siskel as the standard bearer of movie critics. Having a snappy thumbs up/thumbs down system also helped, and both were very engaging personalities who were more than willing to spread their opinions in many other formats.
But there's something more than just being in the spotlight. He was also one of the few professional movie critics who doesn't consider everything that isn't a three hour period drama to be worthless. Movie criticism--much like literary criticism and, well, criticism as an industry altogether--is very incestual and naval-gazing in nature. Those who think of themselves as
"proper" academic critics view thrillers, horror,
romcoms, action, or animations as barely worth calling "film." Unless
it's a drama, a documentary, or a subtitled foreign film, it's not worth seeing. Ebert had no such pretensions. He certainly found dramas to be the elite of movies, but he is more than willing to look
at other movie genres in their own right. He would unabashedly compare movies to other similar movies and not to each other--as, really, they should. He wouldn't compare The Incredible Burt Wonderstone to, say, Silver Linings Playbook, but to some other absurd comedy.
Ebert wasn't without his mistakes, and in his older years his politics sometimes got in the way of his content (thankfully, not much). But he had that balance of
not being a usless film snob while also not being the mealy-mouthed please-everyone
local newspaper critic, either. By providing viewers and readers with content they could actually use, while still maintaining the cache of open-minded reference of the intellectual critic, he was able to provide a high-quality service for over four decades, which I think answers the original question.
Sadly, not two days ago (April 2nd) he announced that he was pulling back his efforts and that his cancer had returned. In doing so, he wrote that he would finally be able to do what he has always wanted to do: watch only those movies he wanted to watch. It's rather unfortunate that that particular pleasure has been taken away from him so quickly after his retirement.