It really takes a special combination of skills to draw in a TV audience to watch critics review movies. It’s been an odd development over the past decade watching the critics recede. I’m one of the hold-outs who believes that critics, educated ones who can write well, have never been more necessary than they are now. Mine is not the popular opinion among those I know in this insular world of entertainment blogging. Ebert is not going down without a fight, even though ABC has finally canceled their half-hour At the Movies show. ¬†Ebert wants to revive some form of what he and Gene Siskel had. ¬†My question is, though, who is Ebert going to cast? I’m a little afraid of the answer, I must say. I think I know one of the people he is probably going to use — because he’s talked about her a few times. Two women pop into my mind, Christy Lemire and Kim Morgan:
I can’t reveal details about the talks we’re deeply involved in. I can say that the working title was “Roger Ebert presents Fill in Words Here,” and that it has now become “Roger Ebert presents At the Movies.” Gene Siskel and I started using that title way back in 1980, when we left PBS for Tribune Broadcasting. I can also say the Thumbs will return.
I can also say that we held video tests with several potential hosts two weeks ago in Los Angeles, and know who we will use. We also know we will have a strong web presence. We will go full-tilt New Media: Television, net streaming, cell phone apps, Facebook, Twitter, iPad, the whole enchilada. The disintegration of the old model creates an opening for us. I’m more excited than I would be if we were trying to do the same old same old. I’ve grown up with the internet. I came aboard back when MCI Mail was the e-mail of choice. I had a forum on CompuServe when it ruled the web. My web site and blog at the Sun-Times site have changed the way I work, and even the way I think. When I lost my speech, I speeded up instead of slowing down.
As an old timer on the net (it’s been sixteen years for me, back in the 1200 baud modem days):
We’ll also go New Cinema. Not just the One Weekend Wonders, although you gotta have ’em, but indie films, foreign films, documentaries, restored classics, the new Herzog, the new Bahrani, the new Almodovar. What’s new on Instant Streaming. What great movies should everyone see? Hey, Paramount just announced $1 million for ten $100,000 movies. Those kinds of films. What kind of a real movie lover cares who has the “exclusive” first trailer in the newest extrusion of the “Transformer” franchise? It’s time to smarten up.
Ebert will also make the occasional appearance:
Chaz and I will produce the show. Yes, I’d like to make occasional appearances on the air. I’m not foolish enough to believe any form of back-and-forth debate is possible, but I could do Great Movies segments, or a wrap-up from Cannes or Toronto. With all the publicity about me “getting my voice back,” some people have the idea that a computer program has magically allowed me to speak again. That will never happen. I type, and the words come out. No one can type fast enough for conversational repartee. With the new software from Edinburgh the words will come out sounding like me. That’s huge. It will work well on the new show in voice-over narration of TV packages.
There has been a fragmentation of movie watching. Theatrical distribution is now dominated by the big-budget, heavily marketed 3-D of the Week. Such films have a success utterly independent of critics. Like junk food, they’re consumed by habit and may be filling but are high in cinematic sugar and fat. The consumers of that product don’t think of a movie as an investment of two hours of their lives.
Those are the kinds of people who might want to watch a movie review program. Our show will try to reach people who think before they watch a movie, and value their time, and their minds. Does that sound like a pitch? Probably. I think it’s also a business plan.
I’ve written before about my adventures as a movie critic on TV. I’ve said what I have to say. Was I sad today when “At the Movies” was cancelled? You bet I was. I received a nice phone call from two of the Disney executives in charge, who had been aboard since Day One, and that was a kindness. Week in and week out since 1980, Disney produced a weekly movie review program, and to my certain knowledge never once tried to influence the reviews of any its their movies. When Rich Frank was president of the Disney Studios, at speeches he’d even show video clips of Siskel and I trashing some of his films. I think he felt a certain pride in our independence.
Under all those years under Michael Eisner and Bob Iger, that never changed. We got support. We made friends. It was a long, strange trip for Gene and myself, Richard, Michael, Tony, Ben and Ben and all of our co-hosts. One of the show’s guest co-hosts, Kim Morgan, tweeted Wednesday night that it was an “honor” to sit in the chair. I replied, “It was the chair that was honored.” Doing that show is harder than it may seem. But I can tell you this: It’s every bit as much fun as it looks like.
For years we closed with, “The balcony is closed.” Before that it was, “See you at the movies.” That’s the right note to end on.
I think Ebert greatly underestimates his own on-camera charisma (and off, for that matter). ¬†It wasn’t the paradigm so much – it was Gene and Roger. ¬†They were personalities and stars. ¬†Their reviews mattered because THEY mattered. ¬†Moreover, people liked watching them regardless of whether they wanted to hear a film review. ¬†They watched because they were entertaining. ¬†TV is still TV — and personality counts for almost everything. As much as I personally love AO Scott and Michael Phillips – they are print journos. ¬†They didn’t set out to be TV stars. ¬†It is really hard to be someone who can do both well. ¬†I don’t think Ebert gives himself enough credit for his gift for both.
Therefore, I worry about his casting choices.