- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2008

CHICAGO (AP) — Richard Roeper, fresh from announcing that he was leaving the balcony of “At the Movies With Ebert & Roeper,” may have put it best.

Hours after word of his departure, he posted on his Twitter feed: “With all the old footage and the person-on-the-street interviews, it’s like watching your own obit.”

Or maybe an obituary for influential, well-informed film criticism on TV.

Last week, Mr. Roeper and Roger Ebert both left the show, whose format has survived from its beginning on public television in 1975 to its latest incarnation through Disney-ABC Domestic Television, with Mr. Roeper hosting with a rotating partner in Mr. Ebert’s health-related absence.

Fellow “At the Movies” founder Gene Siskel died of a brain tumor in 1999, and Mr. Roeper was selected as his permanent replacement in 2000. In recent years, Mr. Ebert has battled cancer and has been left unable to speak - even as he continues to churn out reviews.

Mr. Ebert’s competitive fire and stalwart nature likely have something to do with that. The show started, after all, as a meeting of rivals: Mr. Ebert, the subtly pugnacious Chicago Sun-Times critic and Mr. Siskel, his good-natured, aloof crosstown counterpart at the Chicago Tribune.

“Two scrappy guys who made the criticism of the art a battle,” says Dann Gire, president of the Chicago Film Critics Association and movie critic for the Daily Herald newspaper in Arlington Heights, Ill. “They were passionate, intelligent, knowledgeable people who tackled the art form as if it were a sports game. That is never going to be recaptured.”

Yet ratings slowly eroded following the “Siskel & Ebert” heyday, falling by about 1.4 million viewers between 1992 and the Roeper-led “At the Movies” of 2008. The show drew 3.8 million viewers in 1992, 2.8 million in 2002 and 2.4 million in 2008, according to data provided by Nielsen Media Research.

“On a certain level, it kind of feels like the end of an era,” says Matt Atchity, editor of the movie-review-aggregating Web site RottenTomatoes.com. “Seeing two critics sitting and reviewing movies, they are kind of passing the torch and entering a new era of the way reviews are done.”

Mr. Roeper’s and Mr. Ebert’s replacements - Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz- are notably younger, with arguably hipper resumes. Mr. Lyons, 26, is the son of longtime film critic Jeffrey Lyons and has worked as a reporter and critic for MTV, E! and “Access Hollywood.” (Jeffrey Lyons, meanwhile, has his own syndicated film-review show, “Lyons & Bailes Reel Talk,” with co-host Alison Bailes.)

Mr. Mankiewicz, 41, is a host on Turner Classic Movies and is the grandson of Herman Mankiewicz, who won an Oscar for writing the screenplay for “Citizen Kane” with Orson Welles. Mr. Roeper is 48, and Mr. Ebert is 66.

“These guys set an incredibly high standard,” Mr. Mankiewicz says. “I don’t expect to be part of anything that diminishes that.”

Film critics, though, have been buzzing with the news that “At the Movies” will add new segments, including a new set, music and graphics, all set to debut the weekend of Sept. 6.

“I don’t think there’s an expectation that they’re coming in with a great deal of film knowledge, and I think with Siskel and Ebert that was there,” says Norm Schrager, a senior writer at filmcritic.com. “But I don’t think it’s going to be gossip reporting.”

A higher style quotient could be attractive at a time when the more substantive jobs of newspaper and magazine film critics are disappearing, Mr. Gire says.

“Even though we’re not getting the authoritative voices out of the printed page, we’re opening a whole new generation of young voices on the Internet who have a wide range,” he says. “That’s a reawakening of film criticism.”

As for Mr. Ebert and Mr. Roeper, they’re not saying exactly what their future plans are.

“My intentions are to proceed with a show very much in the tradition of ‘Siskel & Ebert’ and then ‘Ebert & Roeper’ - two journalists reviewing movies from a balcony-style set,” Mr. Roeper wrote in an e-mail to Associated Press. “From what I’ve heard, Disney’s new version of ‘At the Movies’ sounds very much like the first year of a new show, not a continuation of the brand.”

One thing we won’t be seeing on the new “At the Movies”: thumbs. Mr. Ebert holds the copyright to the simple formula that, for better or for worse, will be the television legacy of “Siskel & Ebert.”

Mr. Ebert’s statement, filled with nostalgia for the program he helped create, cryptically promised that the tradition would be back.

“The thumbs will return,” he wrote.



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