CHICAGO — A year after its extreme makeover of “At the Movies” went over like “Land of the Lost,” Disney’s ABC Media Productions said Wednesday it is overhauling the Chicago-based syndicated TV program yet again in hopes of reconnecting with its respected past.
Gone are Ben Lyons of E! Entertainment Television and Ben Mankiewicz of Turner Classic Movies, the cable hosts Disney chose last summer to front what it called “the next generation of the series,” in favor of a return to dueling newspaper film critics, Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and A.O. Scott of the New York Times.
Both Phillips and Scott filled in for Pulitzer Prize winner Roger Ebert opposite fellow Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper in the earlier incarnation of the program, which traces its roots to Chicago public broadcaster WTTW-TV in 1975, when Ebert was first paired on-air with Gene Siskel, the late Chicago Tribune reviewer.
The new pair will make its debut when the series begins its new season Sept. 5 on ABC-owned WLS-TV, where the show is produced for syndication by Disney-ABC Domestic Televison.
“We are thrilled that A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips will be lending their well-respected and influential voices to At the Movies,” Brian Frons, who oversees ABC Media Productions as president of daytime for the Disney-ABC Television Group, said in a statement. “They are regarded by millions of people as authorities in film criticism and will take the series back to its roots of one-on-one film debate that was established when the show first began with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel.”
Ebert and Roeper split with Disney last summer as their old show underwent several changes. Some, such as a new theme song and set, were minor. Others, such as the hiring of Lyons and Mankiewicz and including the input of other critics, were major. Very little of it seemed to gain a foothold, particularly with those who had been drawn to the original show.
Siskel and Ebert and later Roeper and his counterparts engaged viewers by talking about films — both big and small, domestic and international — in a sophisticated way that allowed them to share both their obvious love of movies as well as for spirited, well-considered debate.
Mankiewicz would escape much of the criticism directed at the revamped “At the Movies,” most of which targeted Lyons, whose inability to articulate his opinions undercut his cinematic knowledge and critical skills.
Too often Lyons sounded as though he were dictating a blurb for an ad, rather than giving serious counsel as to whether a consumer should buy a ticket, rent a DVD or skip a film altogether.
“We tried something new last season and we think the world of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz,” Frons said. “They did everything we asked of them and they have been complete professionals. However, we’ve decided to return the show to its original essence — two traditional film critics discussing current motion picture and DVD releases. We thank them for their hard work and dedication this past year and wish them nothing but the best on all of their future endeavors.”
Phillips has been the Chicago Tribune’s film critic since 2006. He has written for about entertainment and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, St. Paul Pioneer Press, Dallas Times-Herald and the Twin Cities weekly City Pages, and also covered movies for Minnesota Public Radio, WGN-AM and MSNBC.
“I can’t wait to mix it up with Tony, who’s one of the sharpest critical voices in the nation,” Phillips said. “To co-host a show with such an extraordinary legacy is a privilege and an opportunity. I know we’re both humbled by that legacy, and we’re eager to get people thinking — really thinking — about movies and to guide cinema lovers in the right direction. And perhaps some unexpected directions.”
Scott has been a film critic at the New York Times for nearly 10 years and been a frequent guest on PBS’ “Charlie Rose,” NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” and other radio and television programs. Before joining the Times, Scott was the Sunday book critic at Newsday and a freelance contributor to dozens of publications, including the New Yorker, Wall Street Journal and The New York Review of Books and Slate.
“I’m overjoyed and honored to be joining ‘At the Movies,’ and especially excited to be working with my colleague Michael Phillips, one of the most intelligent and wittiest critics around,” Scott said in the announcement. “This show, with its long history and rich tradition, stands for the idea that there is a place on television for vigorous argument and independent thinking about movies.”
Whether the new team has the same kind of chemistry that Ebert shared with Roeper and can engage in the show’s old brand of lively give-and-take will be among the challenges in regaining the show’s standing.
Siskel and Ebert were anything but polished themselves when they made their WTTW debut, but that may have been part of their charm. The pair went national on public TV in 1978, moved to commercial syndication with Chicago Tribune parent Tribune Co. in 1982 and then to Disney in 1986. Siskel died in 1999 and Roeper was named his successor the following year.
Ebert had to leave the program in 2006 because of health issues that have robbed him of his voice, but his name and imprimatur remained with the program until the split with Disney last summer.
A sign of trouble had surfaced a few months earlier as the show dropped its use of “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” as shorthand for a recommendation or rejection of a film. Ebert and Siskel’s estate owned the trademark on the thumbs.
“At the Movies” will continue to employ the “see it,” “skip it,” or “rent it” ratings system it adopted at that time.
“I loved working on this show, every moment of it,” Mankiewicz said through Disney. “It was an honor to continue a broadcast legacy not merely started by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, but created by them. No doubt the show is in good hands.”
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