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