No More Ebert & Roeper

It all began the year I was born:  1975.  Two movie critics writing for the two biggest dailies in Chicago were thrown into a new, scary arena:  Television.  One guy was overweight and wore glasses, the other was tall and thin and had a bad moustache to go with his thinning palette.  They weren’t snappy dressers (no ties) and they weren’t natural broadcasters.  It wasn’t a mutual admiration society, either.  How could it be when one guy wrote for The Sun-Times and the other was a Tribune employee?  Scooping the other was both their modus operandi.  Friendship was not.  Every month (later, every week) on PBS they debated the merits and demerits of the latest theatrical releases.  Movies they liked were given a hearty “Yes” vote.  Absolute stinkers were given an emphatic “No”.  Naturally, there were disagreements.  It was a simple, straightforward formula that would prove highly influential in the long run.  They called it “Opening Soon At A Theatre Near You”.
In its third season, the half-hour, commercial-free program was retitled Sneak Previews.  My earliest memory of it is from 1981.  On one particular show, they panned Halloween II but raved about Raiders Of The Lost Ark.  My dad loved taping the film clips they would show in the middle of their discussions, which was likely the only reason he watched it.  It’s a shame he didn’t tape whole episodes.  One wonders what it would be like to watch those old treasures today.  Little did I know at the time how important these ordinary figures would become much later in my teen years.   
Seven years later, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were too popular for PBS.  Disappointed with an underwhelming contract renewal offer, they bolted for the syndication market with their second show, At The Movies.  That one lasted for 4 years.  By 1986, they began their long association with Buena Vista by launching Siskel & Ebert & The Movies and the Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down rating system.  Three years later, it was permanently shortened to the more succinct Siskel & Ebert.  Despite their competitive nature, they indeed became lifelong friends.  That would be most evident in the next decade.
By the late 1990s, Gene became very ill.  A brain tumour threatened his tireless dedication to the show.  Some weeks he literally phoned in his opinions from his hospital bed during tapings.  But time was running out.  After announcing a break from The Dream Beat in early 1999, he died still fighting his brain cancer.  Roger and his staff put together a terrific tribute show which even included snippets of their hilarious appearance on an episode of The Critic.  Later that year, his partner renamed the program Roger Ebert & The Movies and had a rotating list of film luminaries like director Martin Scorsese and fellow critics like Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum and Good Morning America’s Joel Siegel sit in Gene’s aisle seat.  One such substitute, Richard Roeper, The Sun-Times’ Page 11 Columnist, would eventually become Roger’s new co-host.  After decades of suffering through second billing, the Buena Vista series was renamed Ebert & Roeper & The Movies, then simply Ebert & Roeper and finally, At The Movies With Ebert & Roeper.
Like Gene, Roger has had his battles with cancer, as well.  The most recent bouts occurred when tumours were spotted first on his thyroid and then, his salivary gland.  His weight soon plummetted.  His manner of speaking changed and took some getting used to.  He continued to tape the show with Roeper until an emergency operation changed everything in 2006.  More guest critics were called on to fill his seat.  Although he’s continued to file reviews for The Sun-Times, in between periods of much needed recovery, and bravely appeared at his own Overlooked Film Festival last year, as well as The Toronto International Film Festival, he hasn’t been on the show since.  The recent revelation that he’s lost his speaking voice was devastating, although if Gene were still around he would no doubt make a crack about finally getting Roger to shut up.
And now we have the worst news of all.  Today, both Ebert & Roeper have announced they will not return for another season of At The Movies.  (Roger’s statement is here.  Richard’s is here.)  The Thumbs disappeared after Ebert and Buena Vista publicly argued over a new contract.  (After months of nothing, the show now offers a “See It” for good movies and a “Skip It” for the crud.  Better than nothing but I miss The Thumbs.) It remains uncertain what the future of the program will entail.  My guess is that we’ll see a brief repeat of what happened in 1982 when PBS hired new critics to replace Gene & Roger on Sneak Previews.  (It lasted until 1996.)  But, really, who wants to see different critics? 
To Roeper’s enternal credit, he’s kept the show going all this time with mostly solid partners.  At The Movies, in its current form, is still an entertaining, insightful program.  I go from periods of watching it religiously every week to missing it for several months.  But with Richard’s final show approaching in mid-August, it’s time to be a regular viewer again.
Both critics are not saying what direction Buena Vista is going in or even what their future in TV will be.  (Roeper hints at starting his own show.)  Regardless, it’s a sad day for both broadcasting and film criticism.  As previously noted in this space and elsewhere, the movie critic is an endangered species, a victim of ruthless corporate firings.  The fewer critical voices we have for film, the more difficult it will be for audiences to make informed choices on how to spent their entertainment dollars.  With the theatrical experience getting more expensive these days, not to mention needlessly loud and riddled with those incessant pre-movie ads, critics are needed now more than ever.  Even if you’re like me and would rather watch every movie on home video (cheaper and far more enjoyable), we still need smart reviewers to direct us to the best of the best rather than the safe and obvious.
The good news is that both Ebert & Roeper will continue writing for The Sun-Times.  (Ebert’s even started a blog which you can check out here.)  But without the former’s speaking voice and the latter carrying on in his name, a worthy tradition is dying.
Not with a bang but with a whimper.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, July 21, 2008
6:06 p.m.
UPDATE:  Buena Vista has already announced their replacements here.  Call me crazy but At The Movies With Lyons & Mankiewicz just doesn’t sound right.  The new show kicks off in early September.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
2:44 p.m.
UPDATE 2 & CORRECTION:  Ebert has a funny and insightful story reflecting on the end of his old show here.  In the piece, he mentions that Opening Soon At A Theatre Near You originally aired once a month, then became a weekly program.  I’ve made the necessary correction above.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Thursday, July 24, 2008
1:51 p.m.
Published in: on July 21, 2008 at 6:06 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Good article, man! You’re right about critics being a dying breed. Aside from Ebert and Roeper, i can’t think of too many other famous reviewers. When I watch a movie commercial on TV they always quote critics I’ve never even heard of, from a paper I don’t know of, that comes from a town I’ve never heard of! You should do an article about how far a company will go to promote a movie. Remember when Sony made up a critic to promote “A Knight’s Tale”? I read a lot of video game reviews too, and it’s brutal. If somebody pans a game, it’s not uncommon for the distributers of that game to punish the reviewer and their employer by refusing them any more behind the scenes access, demos, and preview stories of other upcoming games. Earlier this year a reviewer was fired for tanking a game on a website that was plastered with ads for that very game. It caused an uproar in the industry. How are critics and reviewers supposed to uphold their integrity when the people signing their paychecks are the very people producing the content that is being reviewed? It’s an obvious conflict of interest, and I’m sure it’s also rampant in the movie industry. Anyways, at least Ebert will still be writing reviews for his paper. I get a kick out of some of the things he says.

  2. Thanks, dude.
    Those unknown critics are generally known as Blurb Whores or Quote Sluts.  Their only function is to offer hyperbolic praise for movies they may or may not have seen in exchange for access to the stars. 
    Dave Manning was the made-up critic Sony came up with back in 2001.  He was also a big fan of The Animal.  I think he was the only one.  The funny thing about that scandal was how unnecessary it was.  There are more than enough Quote Sluts who are willing to be Dave Manning.  The sad thing is how this practice continues today unabated.  That’s the real scandal.
    I wasn’t aware of that video game reviewer story but it doesn’t surprise me.  As entertainment corporations get more and more powerful, they tend to get increasingly thin-skinned about criticism, whether it’s justified or not, because the bottom line is all that matters to them.  It’s a petty thing to do.  Some musicians and politicians react the exact same way.  And with less and less competition, it’s becoming very difficult to compete with them, let alone hold them in check.  But as corporate bigwigs are finding out the hard way now, the real power belongs to the public.  With Starbucks closing hundreds of outlets and The New York Times Company reporting huge losses, just to name two recent examples, conglomeration is proving a dead end for business.
    About Ebert, have you seen his blog?

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