On the day when the war between film critics and Kevin Smith reached a fever pitch, there was a true say-it-ain't-so moment when Roger Ebert tweeted "RIP, "At the Movies." Memories." Only it was so.
The long-running staple of televised film criticism is no more. Dating back to its roots in 1975 when it was called Sneak Previews, most of us remember it under its proper name of Siskel & Ebert which branded the show from 1986 to early 1999 when Gene untimely passed away at the age of 53. After a variety of guest hosts, Richard Roeper became Roger's permanent co-host in 2000 and the show became Ebert & Roeper until 2006. Roeper remained on as host while Ebert had his own battles with cancer. Now called At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper, more guest hosts were invited on from film critics like A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips to filmmakers including Harold Ramis and even Kevin Smith.
But the darkest turn was yet to come in 2008 when both Ebert & Roeper cut their ties with Disney when they decided "to take the program...in a new direction." And it was steered (to the dismay of many) to the likes of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz. While Mankiewicz, a presenter for the Turner Classics channel, was given a pass for his contributions, it was mostly faint praise directed at him not being the other Ben. Generally regarded as a disaster of the highest order for his predilection towards namedropping actors he parties with and a regular disregard for the kind of critical thought associated with the program, the son of critic Jeffrey Lyons (who took over for Gene & Roger when they left Sneak Previews) inspired not only the StopBenLyons website but a regular Quote of the Week column (by yours truly) that remains as a weekly history of how far this "new direction" dragged the show down.
I will never forget the text messages back home in Chicago that I received on vacation last August when it was announced that the Lyons & Mankiewicz experiment would end after a mere year on the air. And that they would be replaced by two actual film critics, Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott, brought back after their guest hosting stints. The show clearly heard the criticisms over the two Bens and even advertised the 2009-10 reboot as having "serious" critics and "serious" reviews. Alas, the refreshing reboot akin to Obama following Dubya at the mic, will last just as long. The statement from Disney reads as follows:
"After 24 seasons with us in national syndication, the highly regarded movie review show "At the Movies" (formerly known as "Siskel & Ebert" and "Ebert & Roeper") will air its last original broadcast the weekend of August 14, 2010. This was a very difficult decision, especially considering the program's rich history and iconic status within the entertainment industry, but from a business perspective it became clear this weekly, half-hour, broadcast syndication series was no longer sustainable. We gratefully acknowledge the outstanding work of the program's current co-hosts A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips and top-notch production staff, and it is with heartfelt appreciation that we extend very special thanks to the two brilliant, visionary and incomparable critics that started it all, Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel."
Michael Phillips will continue on as lead critic at the Chicago Tribune and A.O. Scott will continue at the New York Times. The show may be coming to an end, but the memories will flourish. To think that the show inspired a whole new generation of those who have made their passion in lending their minds to the art of cinema criticism. Roger Ebert's voice, in print, on YouTube, and now computerized better than ever will speak to generations of not just aspiring critics but hopefully to filmmakers everywhere. There is something to be learned from criticism, constructive or vitriolic, and this is the show that taught us that.