A History of “At the Movies”
Written by John C.
Before Siskel and Ebert, television didn’t have a movie review show. All of that changed in September 1975. Once a month on Opening soon at a theater near you, created by Thea Flaum to air locally on PBS affiliate station WTTW in Chicago, Illinois, Gene Siskel from the Chicago Tribune and Roger Ebert from the Chicago Sun-Times would get together and discuss new and soon to be released movies. It became very popular not only for their honest opinions, but also because people could relate to them. The concept was simple, just two guys sitting in a balcony discussing movies, and they would rate them by a simple and universal thumbs-up or thumbs-down. It featured a segment titled Spot the wonder dog which was cued by a bark, and they would pick the worst movie or the “dog” of the Week. It ran for two seasons before being renamed sneak previews in 1977 when it became a biweekly show airing nationally on PBS. Later each episode would end with the tagline 'until next week, save us the aisle seats'.
By 1979 it was a weekly series on over 180 stations, and was the highest rated weekly entertainment show in the history of public broadcasting. The show was hugely popular, and they made the decision to syndicate it to commercial television, and in 1982 Siskel and Ebert were offered a new contract and told to take it, or leave it. They decided not to renew their contract with WTTW, stating that they did not like the direction PBS wanted to go. They were replaced by Neal Gabler and Jeffrey Lyons. Neal Gabler would leave in 1985, because of philosophical differences with the direction of the show. He was replaced by Michael Medved, who had already had cameo appearances on the show presenting the Golden Turkey Awards for the worst movies of the year. Sneak previews was unable to sustain it’s popularity without Siskel and Ebert, and was canceled by PBS in late 1995, just before the 1996 season.
Siskel and Ebert were soon signed by Tribune Entertainment, and became the hosts of At the Movies, in 1986 they left the show because of a dispute with Tribune entertainment. They were replaced by film critic Rex Reed and ET gossip correspondent Bill Harris. The show expanded to also have show business news as well as the regular movie reviews. Harris left in 1988, and was replaced by former ET host Dixie Whatley. It was canceled in 1990. Siskel and Ebert were signed on in 1986, by the Disney owned company Buena Vista, and the name was changed to Siskel & Ebert & the movies. It aired weekly on ABC. In 1989 the title would change again to simply Siskel & Ebert. They had special episodes called Take 2 where instead of reviewing new movies, they would discuss different topics such as Woman in Danger: slasher films of the 1970’s and early 80’s and even a show done in black and white to protest colourization. The show was extremely popular, because despite all the changes they still just seemed like two ordinary guys sitting in a balcony discussing movies, and they didn’t always agree. Some of the most remembered episodes are when they would argue with each other, over which one had a better opinion. They did not just fight on camera, they continued a friendship backstage. One minute they would be arguing and the next, sharing jokes and laughing with each other.
Through out the course of Siskel & Ebert, the show was nominated for seven Primetime Emmy Awards, most recently in 1997 for outstanding information series.
In 1998, Gene Siskel underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor. On February 3rd, 1999, he announced that he was taking a leave of absence, but that he should be back writing by the fall. He wrote “I’m in a hurry to get well because I don’t want Roger to get more screen time than I”. Sadly, Gene Siskel passed away on February 20th, 1999, due to complications from the surgery. The last few shows he co-hosted, he was heard via telephone from his hospital room. The last movie he reviewed was the romantic comedy Simply Irresistible. Roger Ebert continued the show with the title Roger Ebert & the Movies and rotating guest critics, including celebrities like Martin Scorsese and well known critics Joel Siegel from Good Morning America and The Washington Posts TV critic Tom Shales to name but only a few. But, the one that co-hosted the most was Richard Roeper, who was also from the Chicago Sun-Times. The show continued in this format through out the 1998-1999 season and even into 2000. Soon after, Roger Ebert announced that Richard Roeper was to be the new permanent co-host. On September 10th, 2000 the show’s name was changed to Ebert & Roeper & the Movies. A year later the name was shortened to just Ebert & Roeper.
In 2004, Roger Ebert was diagnosed with cancer of the salivary gland, and underwent radiation treatment for tumors on his thyroid and salivary gland. In 2006 the cancer came back, and he had to take a leave of absence. Shortly after, they released reviews that had been written or taped before his surgery. For the remainder of the 2006-2007 season the show continued with guest critics, including Jay Leno, Kevin Smith, A.O. Scott, Robert Wilonsky and Michael Phillips. In June 2007, the show’s name was officially changed to At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper. In August 2007 it was announced that Richard Roeper and any guest critics would not be allowed to use the thumbs-up or thumbs-down trademark which is owned by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s widow, and saying that Robert Wilonsky of the Dallas Observer and HDnet.com would be the permanent co-host until Roger Ebert could return. In October, Robert Wilonsky never returned to the show, and they went back to switching between A.O. Scott of The New York Times and Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune. Roger Ebert would never return to the show, and Michael Phillips became the new host. Once again, a Chicago Sun-Times critic and a Chicago Tribune Critic would get together and discuss movies. This also came with the creation of a new segment titled, Three to See, where both critics would alternate between naming the best three movies in theaters right now. On May 24th, 2008 they started reviewing movies by saying See-it, Skip-it, or Rent-it.
On July 21st, 2008 Richard Roeper announced he was leaving the show, saying that he and Disney-ABC TV could not reach an agreement on a new contract. Roger Ebert also announced that he has cut all ties with the TV show. The last episode of At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper will air on August 17th, 2008. On September 6th, 2008 Richard Roeper and Michael Phillips will be replaced by Ben Lyons (son of well known film critic Jeffrey Lyons) a Hollywood reporter and film critic for E! news and Ben Mankiewicz whose grandfather Herman Mankiewicz won an Academy Award for the screenplay for Citizen Kane.
His great-uncle, writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz has won Oscars for All About Eve and A Love Letter to Three Wives, his cousin Tom Mankiewicz has written several of the James Bond movies including The Man with the Golden Gun and Diamonds are Forever, and his father Frank was the campaign director for the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern’s campaign and was Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s press secretary.
The new hosts will probably keep pretty much the same style that the show is in now, but changes to the music, set, and graphics are to be excepted. They will also introduce new segments, such as a critics roundup where they will be joined via satellite with reviewers from around the world.
The last episode of At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper will air on Sunday, August 17th, 2008 at 10:30 PM on CW 23 and at 1:05 AM on CTV. Please check local listings.