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“At the Movies” Signs Off… Or Does It?

“At the Movies” Signs Off… Or Does It?

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“Until next week, the balcony is closed.” “We’ll see you at the movies.” “We’ll be at the movies.” In its various incarnations over the years, the long-running movie review show “At the Movies” has employed a number of catchy sign-off phrases that have given comfort to millions of movie fans. Yet on August 14, the balcony will officially close forever.

“At the Movies,” which began airing in 1982 with the incomparable pairing of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, will end its run after 28 years—a victim of the changing economics of television programming, waning viewer interest in televised (and print) criticism and the looming presence of the Internet.

In the nearly three decades since it premiered, no television program has come close to capturing the potent combination of wit, intelligence and warmth that “At the Movies” has always provided. Viewers have come to depend on the show for incisive, humorous and smart reviews from some of the best critics in the business. While mindless, celebrity-focused entertainment shows come and go, “At the Movies” has remained a rock of consistent quality.

The show was conceived in the mid-1970s when Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, began hosting a movie review program on PBS originally called “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You,” then renamed “Sneak Previews.” It wasn’t long before Siskel and Ebert became two of the best-known and most influential movie critics in the country.

It’s easy to forget how ground-breaking their original concept was: Two regular guys—smart but not pretentious, opinionated but not boorish—sitting across from each other engaged in animated (sometimes heated) discussions about cinema.

Any kind of movie was up for grabs—arthouse favorites, summer blockbusters and everything in between. The idea was low-tech, low-concept and completely infectious.
Pauline Kael of The New Yorker may have been more intellectually formidable, but Siskel and Ebert made movie criticism accessible, entertaining and fun.

In 1982, “At the Movies” officially began and Siskel and Ebert’s catchy shorthand of “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” soon entered into the pop culture lexicon.

After Siskel suddenly passed away of a brain tumor in 1999, a smattering of guest critics filled his spot, until Richard Roeper, of the Chicago Sun-Times, became permanent co-host with Ebert in 2000.

“We had just as much fun off the air as we had on the air,” reflects Roeper, who hosted with Ebert for six years. “Even when we had a vehement disagreement over a movie, it never carried over into our personal lives.”

Tragedy struck again in 2006 when Ebert was forced to leave the show to undergo treatment for thyroid cancer. After another series of guest critics, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune landed in the second chair until 2008, when both he and Roeper departed.

A few months later, “At the Movies” reached a low point when TV personalities Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz were appointed the show’s official hosts. This incarnation turned the show into a broader, more generic version of what it used to be.

Despite that unfortunate pairing, there was life left in “At the Movies” yet. The following year, Phillips returned to co-host alongside A.O. Scott of The New York Times, who succeeded in restoring the show’s reputation as a provider of smart, witty reviews that never pandered to the audience.

Why was the show canceled after all these years? On his blog, Ebert explains, “It isn’t only ‘At the Movies’ that died. It was a whole genre of television. We thought of it as a movie review program. The television industry thought of it as a half-hour weekly syndicated show… ‘At the Movies’ was one of the last survivors of half-hour syndication. It didn’t fail so much as have its format shot out from beneath it. Blame the fact that cable TV and the Internet have fragmented the audience so much that stations are losing market share no matter what they do. Blame the economy, because many stations would rather sell a crappy half-hour infomercial than program a show they respect.”

Current host Phillips is hopeful that smart TV movie criticism can still be successful. “It’s sad, of course, because the show means one hell of a lot to many of us—and not just those of us who were privileged to take part in it,” he says. “But I think honest, hype-free analysis and appreciation of the movies has a place on television. And I suspect there’s a financial future in it. Maybe for more than one show even.”

Scott, Phillips’ co-host, is also mourning the show’s passing. “I can’t remember a time when the program was not around, offering weekly doses of intelligent and entertaining discussion about movies,” he says. “So as a viewer and a movie fan I’m saddened and a little shocked. I’m sorry it’s ending so soon, just as we were hitting our stride.”

Phillips and Scott have developed a wonderful on-screen rapport and find the experience of co-hosting the show to be something of a dream come true. Phillips recalls being a college student and getting his parents to drive down to Chicago to view Jerzy Skolimowski’s Moonlighting, based on Siskel and Ebert’s recommendation. “We saw the film and debated it, back and forth, over dinner,” says Phillips. “A generation later, there I was filling in for Roger.”

Scott recalls the influential power of Siskel and Ebert, who frequently shined a light on independent films that might otherwise not be given the attention they deserved: “I remember the way Gene and Roger championed Hoop Dreams, a marvelous documentary that I, like a lot of people, would never have seen or heard about if not for them.”

One can’t imagine a quirky film such as Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre finding a fraction of the audience it eventually reached without Siskel and Ebert’s cheerleading.

The show has had a profound influence on several generations of movie lovers and film critics. “It set an example—as Roger has continued to do in his writing—of criticism that was informed and smart without being snobbish, and accessible without being dumbed down or pandering,” says Scott.

“The show embraced all sorts of films—highbrow, lowbrow and middlebrow—with intelligent enthusiasm,” adds Phillips. “[Siskel and Ebert] were who they were, no pretense. A lot of us felt a kinship with them, even if we didn’t know them.”

With print and television movie reviews giving way to the Internet, the future of professional movie criticism seems increasingly cloudy. Ebert, however, is mostly confident in the Internet’s potential. “I think the Internet is ushering in a new golden age of film criticism,” he says. “As a profession paying enough to support a family, it is dying. But in terms of the quality of writers and readers, I am very encouraged.”

“The future of film criticism is a glorious question mark,” says Phillips, though he adds that “I’m an optimist. True cinephiles, even casual moviegoers, will always appreciate an honest inquiry, and testing their own responses against a strong and provocative and passionate point of view. Criticism will remain a part of our lives, whether it’s on the radio or TV or online or in dear old print. It’s a rich variety of voices.”

Despite the dire forecast for professional movie criticism, Scott, too, is optimistic. “I have a hard time believing that there’s no room in the vast cable/broadcast universe for a show like ‘At the Movies,’” he says.

Producer David Plummer, who has been with the show since 1998, however, believes that the days when a single television program could become a national tastemaker are probably over: “Gene and Roger caught lightning in a bottle. It would be impossible to re-create the power and influence they had at the height of their national celebrity.”

While “At the Movies” may eventually spawn a new generation of movie criticism programming, its unique place in television history is assured. It created a new genre in television: Alerting movie fans to exciting independent films, providing a forum for intelligent discussion about movies and inspiring many burgeoning movie critics to pursue their passion. If, as Scott says, “criticism is the art of making a point with clarity, style and insight,” then “At the Movies” has succeeded in doing just that—along with a healthy dollop of humor, entertainment and heart.

The balcony, sadly, is closed… at least for now. MM

Postscript: As it turns out, this story does have a happy ending. After this article went to press, a new incarnation of the show was announced—”Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies”—which will begin airing in January 2011 on PBS. It will be hosted by Elvis Mitchell, of NPR, and Associated Press film critic Christy Lemire. Ebert will be a co-producer, as well as have his own segment on the show, titled “Roger’s Office.” The new program will launch on WTTW Chicago, where the original show was born in 1975.

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