Is there a name more synonymous with the Chicago Sun-Times than Roger Ebert? The late film critic was well-known for his famous “two thumps up, two thumbs down” reviews, and he was a critic at the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967. He was the first film critic ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. Unfortunately, Roger Ebert passed away in 2013 from cancer of the thyroid and salivary glands. Before he passed away, though, his final years were chronicled by Steve James who you may know as the director of Hoop Dreams. Hoop Dreams was one of Ebert’s favorite films.
The film, Life Itself, is based on Ebert’s memoir of the same name. It looked at Ebert’s high-profile life as a critic and celebrated his love of film. It also showed a man who had his struggles and found peace later in life when he met his wife, Chaz Hammelsmith. In the documentary, you see Ebert’s trials after cancer and complications following cancer removal surgery stripped him of his ability to speak or eat. While the film was heartbreaking, it was also a beautiful, moving film about Chicago’s most famous film critic.
As the chairman of Chicago Sun-Times publisher, Wrapports LLC, at the time, Michael Ferro Jr. was approached by the director to invest in the film. Michael Ferro Jr. is a software architect who founded Click Commerce and developed revolutionary medical imaging technology that interested IBM. He is also a self-admitted film buff and a philanthropist who had been involved with many different projects.
In addition to Michael Ferro Jr., Martin Scorsese, a favorite director of Roger Ebert’s, was also another executive producer of the film. Overall, the film had a budget of a $1 million. Michael Ferro Jr. made a substantial investment in Life Itself through his personal foundation. He was approached by Crain’s Chicago Business about his role in the production of the film and had this to say about the project.
“I thought it was a great thing for Roger, and I love the genre. Steve James is a great storyteller. He’s taking documentary-making to a new level.”
Michael Ferro Jr. would go on to sell his stake in Wrapports LLC to become the chairman of Tronc Inc. He retired in 2018. Life Itself ended up being very well-received and was short-listed for an Academy Award.