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‘At the Movies’ reboot unbooted

File this one under “they told you so.” About a year ago, Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper left “Ebert & Roeper & the Movies” after Disney-ABC Television attempted to retool the show into something that it wasn’t. Ebert, who owns the trademarks for “Thumbs Up” and “Thumbs Down” had already been in less-than-successful negotiations with Disney over their acquisition of the trademarks. When Disney announced that “At the Movies” would be evolving its format into something else, negotiations apparently broke down completely, and Ebert and Roeper both walked away.

I was not a regular viewer of “Ebert & Roeper” until January 2008, when I finally got a DVR. It was simply too hard to find the program in my local market (something like Saturday mornings at 4 a.m., but then sometimes on Sundays instead). But once I got the DVR it made it easy for me to watch the show weekly where I hadn’t been able to before. Ebert had long since been sidelined because of his illness and the loss of his voice, but I thought that Roeper and Michael Phillips made a good team.

When the retooled “At the Movies” premiered last September with its new critics, Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, I decided I would give it a chance. That chance ended up being very brief; I watched exactly one episode before deleting it from my weekly DVR lineup.

Simply put, the “retooled” format was an embarrassment. Whoever came up with the “improvements” had been watching too many personality-driven cable news programs. Where we used to simply have two critics debating a movie across the aisle, we now had a confused format where the critics would go to a panel with other critics in (apparently) other cities. There were boxes on the screen and talking heads, and a scoring system that was simply goofy. And the discussion would veer beyond movies and into other Hollywood BS. It was a bastardization of everything the program stood for.

Which doesn’t mention the main issue, which is that to me Lyons and Mankiewicz had almost no chemistry or credibility. The whole thing screamed of artifice. I felt like I was watching a lame pretender trying to be “At the Movies Deluxe.” You can count me among the apparently many who stopped watching the show specifically because it became a show I no longer wanted to watch.

Out of curiosity, I tuned back in for one episode back in January. It seemed that most of the silly retooled elements had been dropped. Lyons and Mankiewicz simply debated movies, in the original “At the Movies” tradition. Of course, it was still Lyons and Mankiewicz, and I still had no interest in their opinions.

Apparently, Disney has gotten the message from their sagging ratings. I read this morning in this piece that Lyons and Mankiewicz have been fired in favor of more respected critics Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott.

The switch to Phillips and Scott appears to be part of an effort to return the show to its beginnings, featuring two movie critics with substantive credentials, though it’s unclear yet whether the new duo will bring enough presence and punch to the proceedings to significantly boost the show’s ratings.

Chicago Sun-Times

Could this be one of those rare instances where the ratings reflect substance over style, and depth over corporate groupthink? One can hope so.

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9 comments on this post

It doesn’t seem like your average schmuck guffawing at Mike Myers’ latest shenanigans is likely to tune into a detailed debate about the merits of some Oscar nominee-to-be. You’d think the suits would have figured this out before they tried to “retool.” Anyway, I’d check out A.O. Scott. I always enjoy reading his critiques (although he’s no Jammer).

I’ve loved the show since it was Siskel & Ebert, and Roeper managed to hold it together and keep it engaging when Ebert’s illness forced him to debate with a revolving roster of guest critics.

But after they changed the format? Well, I bet your record… I watched two episodes. It was simply awful and completely missed why I had continued to tune in. Ebert still writes reviews online and I can read those.

I wish the new critics all the best, but I don’t see the point in ever looking back at that show.

The switch to Lyons and Mankwerksdfswhatever was jarring, but I actually quite like the duo now and I’m sad they got canned already. They really grew on me.

I watched one episode of the “retooled” version and never returned to it. I didn’t think anything was all that bad, but something felt seriously off. You said it best with “artifice”. It all felt so fake. Honestly it made me appreciate the original show a lot more. Phillips and Scott should make a great team though, and I’m excited.

I think you’re right in saying that this is an instance where ratings truly reflected quality because the people watching “At the Movies” in the first place are all people who genuinely care about quality.

Cool, but I personally can’t stand Scott. Shame they weren’t able to get Roeper back. Phillips and him made a great ‘team’. Oh well.

Well Lyons and Menk were OK by themselves. I thought Menk was too smart and Lyons to stupid. Menk often goes out of his way to ‘prove’ a point that simply cannot be proven. I think Menk and Roeper would be really good. Scott and Roeper are too similiar.

Roger Ebert, in the course of surgery, lost the use of his voice. He still cannot speak (that would require further heavy-duty surgery which he understandably does not wish to undergo at this time). Nevertheless, and in all serious, I would rather watch a series of notes constituting his reviews pass across the screen for half an hour than watch Lyons & Mankiewicz, one of whom called I Am Legend one of the greatest movies of recent years. Scott and Phillips have personalities and know something about movies. That means I’ll give their show half a year, at most.

Daniel, you make some valid points, but I wonder why you posted this here rather than over on the Star Trek review thread. Really has nothing to do with the blog post at hand.

My biggest problem with the retooled version of the show is that it was clear that Lyons was hired because of his father (Jeffery Lyons), and because he was really hot (no arguments there). He had no real credibility.

Also Disney clearly had no faith in the duo as their “Critics Roundup” embarrassment showed.

Thankfully Scott and Phillips work well together. I watched their first show the other night and let out a happy sigh of relief. Good to have real reviewers back on the case.

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