'At the Movies' saves its aisle seat, for now - East Valley Tribune: Get Out

'At the Movies' saves its aisle seat, for now

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Posted: Wednesday, July 23, 2008 2:19 pm | Updated: 12:09 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

CHICAGO - Richard Roeper, fresh off announcing that he was leaving the balcony of "At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper," may have put it best.

Hours after word of his departure, he posted on his Twitter feed: "With all the old footage and the person-on-the-street interviews, it's like watching your own obit."

Or maybe an obituary for influential, well-informed film criticism on TV.

This week, Roeper and Roger Ebert both left the show, whose format has survived since its beginning on public television in 1975 to its latest incarnation through Disney-ABC Domestic Television, with Roeper hosting with a rotating partner in Ebert's health-related absence.

Fellow "At the Movies" founder Gene Siskel died of a brain tumor in 1999 and Roeper was selected as his permanent replacement in 2000. In recent years, Ebert has battled cancer and was left unable to speak - even as he continues to churn out reviews.

Ebert's competitive fire and stalwart nature likely have something to do with that. The show started, after all, as a meeting of rivals: Ebert, the subtly pugnacious Chicago Sun-Times critic; and Siskel, his good-naturedly aloof crosstown counterpart at the Chicago Tribune.

"Two scrappy guys who made the criticism of the art a battle," said Dann Gire, president of the Chicago Film Critics Association and movie critic for The Daily Herald newspaper in Arlington Heights. "They were passionate, intelligent, knowledgeable people who tackled the art form as if it were a sports game. That is never going to be recaptured."

But ratings slowly eroded following the "Siskel & Ebert" heyday, falling by about 1.4 million viewers between 1992 and the Roeper-led "At the Movies" of 2008. The show drew 3.8 million viewers in 1992, 2.8 million in 2002 and 2.4 million viewers in 2008, according to data provided by Nielsen.

"On a certain level it kind of feels like the end of an era," says Matt Atchity, editor of the movie review aggregating Web site RottenTomatoes.com. "Seeing two critics sitting and reviewing movies, they are kind of passing the torch and entering a new era of the way reviews are done."

Roeper and Ebert's replacements - Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz - are notably younger, with arguably hipper resumes. Lyons, 26, is the son of longtime film critic Jeffrey Lyons and has worked as a reporter and critic for MTV, E! and "Access Hollywood." (Jeffrey Lyons, meanwhile, has his own syndicated film-review show, "Lyons & Bailes Reel Talk," with co-host Alison Bailes.)

Mankiewicz, 41, is a host on Turner Classic Movies and is the grandson of Herman Mankiewicz, who won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for "Citizen Kane" with Orson Welles. Roeper is 48 and Ebert is 66.

"These guys set an incredibly high standard," Mankiewicz said. "I don't expect to be part of anything that diminishes that."

Lyons said taking on the show was a "huge responsibility."

"We want to continue what people have come to respect for this show," Lyons said, "which is strong movie reviews."

The film critic community, though, has been buzzing with the news that "At the Movies" will add new segments, including a new set, music and graphics, all set to debut the weekend of Sept. 6.

"I don't think there's an expectation that they're coming in with a great deal of film knowledge, and I think with Siskel and Ebert that was there," said Norm Schrager, a senior writer at filmcritic.com. "But I don't think it's going to be gossip reporting."

A higher style quotient could be attractive at a time when the more substantive jobs of newspaper and magazine film critics are disappearing, Gire said.

"Even though we're not getting the authoritative voices out of the printed page, we're opening a whole new generation of young voices on the Internet who have a wide range," Gire says. "That's a reawakening of film criticism."

Or perhaps a fragmentation of it, splitting the easy-to-understand "thumbs-up, thumbs-down" into a digital cacophony.

"People are looking for a consensus of opinion," says Chris Barsanti, senior writer at filmcritic.com. "That's the great thing that the Internet can bring. A lot of people just want to go read four or five reviews and see what's the overall opinion. That's where the Internet has something that TV and newspapers can't really compete."

So the old saw proves true: Everyone's a critic.

"Some people want to know whether or not a movie is worth seeing," Atchity says. "Some people really want to get in a discussion about the merits and deeper issues that a film talks about. There's room for both."

As for Ebert and Roeper, they're not saying exactly what their future plans are.

"My intentions are to proceed with a show very much in the tradition of `Siskel & Ebert' and then `Ebert & Roeper' - two journalists reviewing movies from a balcony-style set," Roeper wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "From what I've heard, Disney's new version of `At the Movies' sounds very much like the first year of a new show, not a continuation of the brand."

One thing we won't be seeing on the new "At the Movies": Thumbs. Ebert holds the copyright to the simple formula that, for better or for worse, will be the television legacy of "Siskel & Ebert."

Ebert's statement, filled with nostalgia for the program he helped create, cryptically promised that the tradition would be back.

"The thumbs will return," he wrote.

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