‘At the Movies’ is canceled. Was it too soon?


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Here we were all ready to gin up a post about how ‘At the Movies’ seems to be hitting its stride this year with Michael Phillips and A.O. Scott after the shaky experiment that was the two Bens (Lyons and Mankiewicz) last year. And now we find out there’s nothing to gin -- the show is being canceled.

‘At the Movies’ fought the good fight of balancing the commercial with the art house -- every second of coverage for a small or foreign film was precious, and Phillips and Scott found a way to secure enough of them, even amid the obligatory ‘Twilight’ and ‘Alice In Wonderland’ assessments (just as Gene Siskel and Rogert Ebert did in the 1970s and 1980s).


But today, Disney-ABC, which syndicated the program, gave up on the fight. Some will say they gave up too soon; it takes years, after all, for any talk-format show to find its audience. There’s something to that. But the show was in many ways an anachronism, with even the more hospitable precincts of print and radio struggling to attract audiences for film reviews.

And after trying a younger, more populist approach with Ben Lyons last year that didn’t work, and then going back to serious criticism this year, at least they gave it a shot.

Many point to the growth of review-aggregation tools and social media as a reason for the demise of the show (and the declining prominence of critics in general). There’s something to that too, though it’s worth remembering that Twitter isn’t all tweens breathlessly effusing about the Jonas Bros.; some old-school critics, like Ebert himself, have brilliantly used social media too.

We didn’t always agree with the new ‘At the Movies’ pair -- Phillips in particular -- though Scott was often brilliantly on point in taking on scared cows like ‘Shutter Island’ and supporting less fashionable causes like ‘Green Zone.’ But even when their take differed from our own, it was great fun to watch two intelligent people gab about the movies, whether to get worked up, nod along in agreement or just take the temperature of two of the country’s leading critics.

We can only hope a version of the program -- or least some sort of film-review show -- will survive on cable. Everything else good on television seems to.
--Steven Zeitchik


Dumbing down the film critic