Disney/ABC is pulling the plug on the popular ‘movie-critics-going-at-each-other’ show in August. It lasted 24 years. As far as I know, At the Movies died when Roger Ebert lost his voice in 2006. Yes, Gene Siskel’s death in 1999 was a big blow to the show, but the two of them have been doing it so long between ’75 and ’99 and knew each other so well that Ebert was able to continue the legacy of intelligent, informed, entertaining arguments about the state of cinema. He had a tough season with rotating guests in ’99-’00 (Kevin Smith and Richard Roeper were my personal favourites). Roeper stuck around for a few seasons as a second chair to Ebert, but the last few years were a big mess. ABC/Disney tried to put in Ben Mankiewicz and Jeffrey Lyons , but got horrible reception, bad ratings, and people just didn’t like them. Besides, what the hell happened to Roeper? Pushed out?
This year, A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips have reinvented the show, and it became more fun, more engaging. I actually started putting aside 20-30 minutes a week to catch it. But i guess the damage has been done. Too many people have given up on the show during the ‘post-Ebert’ years, and there was no going back. Besides, look at the state of cinema today – cheap horror knock-offs, teen sex comedies (based on teen sex vampire novels), endless sequels, and now everything seems to be released ‘in glorious 3D’. Where are the good, real, fun movies?
A few weeks ago Ebert has posted a little retrospective of his behind-the-scenes battles with ABC over his show. Delved into details of the ‘thumbs’ branding, contract negotiations during and after his throat cancer thingy, and the various ‘experiments’ that Disney/ABC has been doing to the show. While a lot of it was as you might expect, unnecessary, greed-based tinkering, he concluded with a very zen statement, actually a phrase from Monstruck. It was something along the lines of “no matter what you do, and what decisions you make, you die just like everyone else. How very perceptive. Disney bought a good show, squeezed it for profits, pushed out talent, brought in hacks, and now the show needs to be killed off (even though the new critics are actually pretty good). What good did all this tinkering do?
People still love movies. Ebert and Siskel have taught us to love films, love good films (and stay away from bad ones). Is there even a concept of ‘thumbs down’ anymore – every flick comes out with so much marketing, it will draw people to theaters, making money, encouraging more hacky films. But that’s another rant, for another day.
I hope Roger Ebert has something up his sleeve, and will bring us back something fun we can watch/participate/contribute to. The show might be canceled, the spirit and culture of movie-loving lives on.