This week marks the final reel of 'At the Movies,' a syndicated movie reviews show that launched in 1975 and made Chicago film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert household names. Over the years, Siskel and Ebert famously fought over everything from Stanley Kubrick's 'Full Metal Jacket' to the all-but-forgotten Burt Reynolds family vehicle 'Cop and a Half,' which Ebert recommended and Siskel would never forgive him for.

With the power of their "thumbs up," "thumbs down" review system, Siskel and Ebert influenced pop culture, helped a number of small films reach a wider audience and became the most famous film critics in the country.

Siskel died in 1999, and was replaced by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper in 2000. In 2006, Ebert was sidelined due to ongoing health issues. Roeper kept the show going with a variety of guests until he and Ebert officially left the show in 2008, following a fallout with the show's distribution company, Disney-ABC Domestic Television.

This week marks the final reel of 'At the Movies,' a syndicated movie reviews show that launched in 1975 and made Chicago film critics Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert household names. Over the years, Siskel and Ebert famously fought over everything from Stanley Kubrick's 'Full Metal Jacket' to the all-but-forgotten Burt Reynolds family vehicle 'Cop and a Half,' which Ebert recommended and Siskel would never forgive him for.

With the power of their "thumbs up," "thumbs down" review system, Siskel and Ebert influenced pop culture, helped a number of small films reach a wider audience and became the most famous film critics in the country.

Siskel died in 1999, and was replaced by Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper in 2000. In 2006, Ebert was sidelined due to ongoing health issues. Roeper kept the show going with a variety of guests until he and Ebert officially left the show in 2008, following a fallout with the show's distribution company, Disney-ABC Domestic Television.

That same year, Disney tried to revamp the show by hiring Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz and E! News correspondent Ben Lyons. The result was a disaster. Lyons received a slew of bad reviews from moviegoers, fans of the show -- even Roger Ebert himself. Due to poor ratings, the Bens were canned in 2009, and were subsequently replaced by esteemed film critics Michael Phillips (Chicago Tribune, where Siskel once worked), and A.O. Scott of the NY Times. The move was seen as an attempt to bring 'At the Movies' back to its roots.

Under their care, 'At The Movies' received good press for its reviews and discussions, which covered everything from great working character actors to overrated and underrated horror movies; and thanks to Web-exclusive commentaries, the show's online traffic has practically doubled, according to Phillips.

Still, it wasn't enough to keep Disney from announcing the show's cancellation in March.

Before the credits roll on the final episode this weekend (check local listings), Phillips and Scott met Moviefone near the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago to talk about the show's final days and why film criticism still matters.

You received a lot of good reviews for your work on 'At the Movies.' Web traffic is up ...

Scott: So why did they cancel us?

Phillips: There's no debate about our highly variable time slots. In the larger markets where we were doing well -- New York, L.A., Boston, Chicago, San Francisco -- the ratings were very encouraging. Why? Because the time slots were good. So why weren't the time slots so good in Albuquerque or Birmingham, Alabama? [EDITOR'S NOTE: The show airs Saturdays at 3:35AM in Birmingham, and 6:30PM in Albuquerque]. Well, there's a correlation, you know?

Scott: Also, when Roger and Gene went into syndication, there was no cable; there was no Internet. Syndication was this huge gold mine. That was the way you could make a lot of money, and get into a lot of markets and a lot of time slots. Now, you look at our show -- a half-hour in any market, in any time slot -- and you look at [Disney-ABC Domestic Television], and there's a difference of scale there that's in a way insurmountable. Even if our show got up around a 1.5 [rating] or even above a 2.0, it's still only half an hour to sell ads against and you still have to split that revenue with local stations. So it never lost any money; it made a little bit of money for Disney, even if the ratings were down. But it was never going to make a lot, or enough to be meaningful.


There had been talk about canceling the show before you were hired. From a business perspective, why do you think they gave you a shot? Did anyone expect the ratings to dramatically improve?

Phillips:
Honestly, there were no false expectations and no promises made. Our contracts actually read 13 weeks at a time, I think.

So you guys went in thinking ...

Phillips: Let's do what we can in the time we have to do it.

Scott: I think after the first 13 weeks, we figured we had the year ... Disney was fairly straightforward ... They were not going to spend a lot of money publicizing it. So we did what we could ... It was one of those things where you understand it perfectly as a business decision ... But you also feel on the merits of what you've been doing, that's hard.

The news must have been very frustrating, even if you did see the writing on the wall.

Phillips: The peculiarity, I guess, is they gave the advance notice to let the stations make their adjustments for the fall. March was when we heard about it. In one way, it's excellent to get to know you have [six] more months and you make the best of them. In another sense, there were some people who assumed the show was off the air immediately. Not true. That was mixed in with a group of people who never realized the show was on the air to begin with still. So in a way it sort of muddied the perception even further.

Scott: It was also painful, because it happened at a time when our momentum we felt like was really strong. We had a big and satisfying media blitz before the Oscars where we did this contest. We had gotten ourselves on Charlie [Rose's] show, on 'The View,' on 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?', on CBS' ['Early Show'], did 'Sound Opinions.' So we felt like we were really breaking through, and we had done some really tremendous shows. We had done one show where the only new movies we reviewed were 'The Ghost Writer' and 'Shutter Island,' and we opened that up to talk about [Roman] Polanski and [Martin] Scorsese ... People really appreciated it. ... So things were beginning to break in our favor. And then to have sort of the ax fall at that point, again, it wasn't a surprise.

Phillips: We had temporarily forgotten about the likelihood ... Now if we're lucky enough to find another purse somewhere, there are frustrations that we will be eager to address, just in terms of loosening up the show, visually, giving it more the look and the vibe we would like to see in a movie show. That would be a real treat if we get a shot at that.


When you heard the news, was there any part of you that thought, "If only we had done this or done that?" Do you take responsibility for its cancellation?

Phillips: I don't know. We tweaked the format as much as we could and still put out the show and not drive people crazy.

Scott: Also, we had to be true to our opinions and our personalities and our ethics ... It was never a possibility of amplifying the argument for the sake of argument, or manufacturing disagreement or point-counterpoint, or in any way falsifying what we thought ...It was very clear right from the start [that] we were not going to duplicate Roger and Gene. It's a different time. We have different temperaments. Criticism is different. Television is different. But I think we both got comfortable with it pretty quickly.

Phillips: Every time we messed around with the format, it seemed to help us become more of the guys we are ... And we didn't hear a single complaint about any change we've made.

Scott: I think both of us, where we agree most, is our basic idea of what the point of criticism is and what good it is to people who like movies ... It's to stimulate people's own thoughts, to get them thinking or talking. What we've always tried to do -- and I think a lot of times succeeded in doing -- is getting a couple ideas out there ... We're not going to give the full account, pro or con, about a movie as complicated as 'Shutter Island,' or even a movie as simple as 'Twilight' ... What we wanted to do from the beginning, and continued to learn how to do more and more of, is to get enough of our complimentary and contradictory ideas in that minute and a half so that people will feel like they got a lot more than we actually said.

How do you feel about being the final hosts of a show that has been on for so many years?

Scott: If you had told me when I was growing up, "Someday, you'll be the co-host of this show," it would be beyond absurd. So it's a little bit like ...

Phillips: It's not even happening now.

Scott: But I think it's been a great show through its history. It changed a lot about how movie criticism was done. When you think about, the image in the popular mind of the film critic is ...

Phillips: Two, pasty, middle-aged white guys.

Scott: So to have upheld that tradition, and maybe also to have probably buried it, may be our great accomplishment. [Laughs]

Phillips: It's been a real pleasure and a great professional challenge to try this. It's more than I ever could have hoped. I grew up watching [Siskel and Ebert], and a lot of people I knew, at the factories I [once] worked at as a janitor, I remember hearing conversations with these guys who worked at the factory. "I went and saw my first movie with subtitles." "Why?" "Because Roger and Gene recommended this film."

Scott: I mourn the end of this show. I would as a viewer, and as somebody who cares about movies and cares about film criticism independent of my own involvement. But I refuse to believe in the death of the enterprise that it represents.

Phillips: The formats are changing faster than you can keep track of, but the interest in what we see on those screens is not abating.

Scott: And the interest in discussing it, arguing about it, making some sense of it, is not going away either.
CATEGORIES Interviews