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FILM CRITIC EBERT BACKS RIVAL IN TRIBUNE TIFF

Leopold is a researcher at The Times Chicago Bureau

For almost a decade, the rivalry between film critics Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times and Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune has made for some of the angriest and liveliest on-air disagreements in contemporary television.

First on “Sneak Previews” and now on “At the Movies,” the two have made a very comfortable living perpetuating that rivalry.

They are a pair of opposites--one heavy and one thin, one balding and one with a full head of hair--that are seemingly made for confrontation.

They have had very public disagreements about everything from the quality of movies to the order of their credits on their popular syndicated television show.

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But now Ebert has cast himself in an unfamiliar and unlikely role--defending Siskel, his long time adversary, who he believes is being unceremoniously dumped as chief film critic at the Chicago Tribune.

The Tribune began looking for a new film reviewer after Siskel and Ebert announced that they were moving from Tribune Entertainment Co., sister company of the Chicago Tribune, to Walt Disney Domestic Television.

Tribune Editor James F. Squires said he decided to relieve Siskel of most of his movie-reviewing duties because the editor was concerned about the increased demands on Siskel’s already busy schedule. Squires has been quoted in other

publications as saying he was concerned about a conflict of interest in Siskel working for Disney while reviewing movies for the Tribune. But he told The Times that conflict of interest was “the issue least among our concerns.”

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“As long as he was working for another Tribune subsidiary . . . Siskel was primarily a Chicago Tribune employee. His work for Tribune Entertainment was secondary,” explained Squires. With the move to Disney, the Tribune believes that it would no longer have “first call” on Siskel’s time.

“He has done a great job for us,” Squires added. “It’s a question of how much a person can do physically. We think you need to be a newspaper person first and Gene Siskel has always tried to do that. But there comes a point where a career is so big that you can’t do that.”

Siskel has refused to talk to reporters about his status at the Tribune. Ebert, however, insists that the Tribune is punishing Siskel for taking his business to a company other than Tribune Entertainment. “I don’t think anyone would have found Siskel overworked if we had signed again with Tribune Entertainment,” Ebert said.

Siskel, 40, is being offered a “free-lance contract position” at the newspaper that gave him his first journalism job 17 years ago. If he accepts that offer, Siskel’s workload at the newspaper will be reduced by half, and he will serve principally as a writer on the film industry for the Sunday paper.

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He will also lose the prestige that goes along with being the top film critic at a major daily newspaper. For example, Siskel will no longer be able to call himself the Tribune film critic, a title that “will go to the new critic,” Squires said. Ebert says the success of the TV program stems from the public’s perception of the co-hosts as professional critics for newspapers.

Editor Frank Devine at the rival Chicago Sun-Times has offered a similar reporting position to Siskel should he choose to leave the Chicago Tribune entirely.

“They’re treating him very unfairly,” Ebert said. “They’re treating him like the girl you love to date but don’t want to bring home to Mom. He can’t be their film critic but they don’t want him to go to the Sun-Times either.”

According to Don Hacker, executive vice president of Tribune Entertainment Co., which for four years has syndicated “At the Movies” to 49 of the top 50 television markets, the show had experienced “a slight erosion in ratings in the last two years” and “drifted downward in the last few months.”

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Jack Devlin, Tribune Entertainment’s director of creative services, says his company broke off negotiations with Siskel and Ebert when the two critics refused its offer of more than $700,000 each annually. Devlin says the two were asking for $1 million apiece yearly.

“At the Movies” will remain with Tribune Entertainment, which has begun a “coast-to-coast” search for new talent to host the show. Hacker says the field has been narrowed to 8 to 10 candidates and that the company has “talked to anybody who’s anybody in the world of film criticism,” from Gene Shalit to Rex Reed.

Four years ago, Tribune Entertainment was on the other side of the fence. It copied the format of public television’s “Sneak Previews” and lured away stars Siskel and Ebert to create “At the Movies.” “Sneak Previews” survived on public TV, and two new critics were hired as hosts.

Siskel and Ebert’s five-year contract with Disney includes up to six specials a year, which Ebert hopes will give the two an opportunity to do reporting on such topics as the Cannes film festival and the video revolution.

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Like Sun-Times Editor Devine and Tribune Editor Squires, Ebert downplays the conflict-of-interest issue that some film people believe will dog them as a result of their move to Disney television. The parent company, Walt Disney Pictures, is an aggressive, up-and-coming producer of films.

“I don’t see any problems,” Ebert says. “We will have total autonomy over what we say and what we cover.” Nor will he avoid reviewing Disney-produced films on the new show, which will be titled “Siskel and Ebert and the Movies.”

“I will say exactly what I want about any film Disney makes,” Ebert told The Times.

“Even if you try to avoid it, conflict will find you,” he added. “I’d worked at the Sun-Times for 18 years and suddenly found myself working for the man (Rupert Murdoch) who owns 20th Century Fox. There are so many mega-conglomerates out there it is almost impossible to avoid working for somebody who makes or is somehow connected to making pictures.”

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Editor Squires thinks the blurring of lines between entertainment and news is “a real problem for our industry, although not a particular problem with Gene Siskel.”

Ebert sees it differently: “I’m a movie critic who operates in two mediums. What we do on TV is the same as what we do in print. There are no writers, no guest stars, no dancing girls.

“You only have to tune in once to see we weren’t cast on our good looks,” he said.


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