Thursday, July 31, 2008

Theater goes dark for Ebert, Roeper,0,5189340.column

Theater goes dark for Ebert, Roeper
Phil Rosenthal Media
July 22, 2008

The curtain has come down on "At the Movies With Ebert & Roeper."

The aisle may vanish too.

Chicago Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert and columnist Richard Roeper are cutting ties with the TV franchise that Disney-ABC Domestic Television has syndicated nationally for 22 years.

Each cited major changes they say Disney plans to make to the movie-review program that for three decades has forced filmmakers and studio executives on both coasts and beyond to pay heed to judgments of their work in Chicago, the heart of flyover country.

Industry sources said that Disney is contemplating a shift to more of a Hollywood focus, even though the program would continue to be taped in Chicago, where the production enjoys a tax credit from the state of Illinois.

With the start of the show's 2008-09 season less than five weeks away, "At the Movies" staffers were awaiting word from Roni Selig, a senior vice president with Disney's Buena Vista Productions, on just how many of the talked-about potential changes, including possible elimination of the show's familiar "across the aisle" theater set, will be realized.

Disney had no comment Monday as details were being finalized. Selig did not return a call to her New York office.

A series of replacement hosts—including likely successors Ben Lyons of E! Entertainment Television and Ben Mankiewicz of Turner Classic Movies—has been brought to WLS-Ch. 7's State and Lake studios to audition in a variety of formats in recent weeks. But Disney seemed to be caught off-guard by the timing of Roeper's statement late Sunday, and Ebert's follow-up Monday.

Lyons said he was "still sort of uncertain as to what's going on," so he couldn't comment. And, yes, he is the son of longtime movie reviewer Jeffrey Lyons, who was one of the successors to Ebert and the late Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel when they left public television's "Sneak Previews" for commercial syndication in 1982. Ben Lyons now co-hosts the syndicated "Reel Talk" for NBC Universal.

Mankiewicz, the grandson of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and great-nephew of director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, could not be reached for comment.

Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Phillips has been the most recent replacement for Ebert, who has been absent from the program for two years because of health issues that have robbed him of his voice. Phillips has a multiyear contract with Disney, but his future with "At the Movies" is in limbo.

"I haven't talked to Disney yet, but I wish them well in the new format," Phillips said. "I suspect, especially as they retool the show, there's going to be plenty of room in the marketplace for competitors. Whether or not I'm involved, I have no idea."

Roeper, who was unavailable for comment, wished Disney "the best of luck with their new show, whatever form it may take." He plans to continue co-hosting "a movie review show that honors the standards established by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert more than 30 years ago."

Roeper, who rejected a Disney renewal, reportedly has several years left on his contract with the Sun-Times and is appearing regularly on Starz cable, introducing documentaries on moviemaking. He has a book out, "Debunked!: Conspiracy Theories, Urban Legends, and Evil Plots of the 21st Century."

Because of his Disney contract, Roeper cannot sign a deal for any new program until after his final program airs the weekend of Aug. 16 on Chicago's WLS-Ch. 7.

Among those interested in syndicating a new program with Roeper and possibly Phillips is said to be MGM Worldwide Television, but an MGM spokesman could not confirm that beyond saying the company is aggressively looking for new product.

Siskel and Ebert began reviewing movies in tandem in 1975 on Chicago PBS outlet WTTW-Ch. 11, which eventually took their program national. The pair jumped to commercial TV through Chicago Tribune parent Tribune Co.'s TV syndication wing in 1982, switching to Disney in 1986.

The duo engaged viewers talking about films—both big and small, domestic and international—in a sophisticated way through their obvious passion for movies and debate.

Siskel died in 1999 and was replaced by Roeper.

"Gene and I felt the formula was simplicity itself: Two film critics, sitting across the aisle from each other in a movie balcony, debating the new films of the week," Ebert said. "Few shows have been on the air so long and remained so popular. We made television history."


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