DUMBING DOWN THE FILM CRITIC
Is Ben Lyons the most hated film critic in America?
In the four months since the fresh-faced 27-year-old “movie dude” for the E! Entertainment Network was installed to co-host a revamped version of the venerable movie review program “At the Movies,” he has gotten a resounding thumbs down from an angry mob of film bloggers, columnists, professional movie critics and fans of the show. Consensus is that Lyons, the son of New York film critic Jeffrey Lyons, is unworthy of the balcony seats once occupied by Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel on the TV mainstay that has rallied audiences into theaters for more than three decades.
“His integrity’s out the window. He has no taste,” said Erik Childress, vice president of the Chicago Film Critics Assn. “Everyone thinks he’s a joke.”
Lyons became infamous in film circles for calling Will Smith’s 2007 zombie-vampire movie “I Am Legend” “one of the greatest movies ever made.” That appraisal became a key part of the movie’s print advertising campaign.
“One of the ‘greatest movies ever made’?” said Childress, who’s also a movie reviewer for eFilmCritic.com. “Next to ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and ‘Citizen Kane’? The only way you can say that with a straight face is if you’ve only seen 50 movies in your life. Or you’re trying to give quotes to appease someone who can do you a favor later.”
Lyons declined to be interviewed for this story. But among the accusations flung his way: that he landed his job through nepotism, is unknowledgeable about movies, sucks up to celebrities and, most damaging, is a “quote whore” -- a shill for movie marketers whose all-too-frequent raves are repurposed as gushy pull quotes on movie ads, usually accompanied by several exclamation points.
Which would be of hardly any consequence were it not for the drastic transformation of film criticism. Long gone are the times when a vaunted single critic such as the New Yorker’s Pauline Kael could inject a film into the national consciousness with a single positive review. These days, moviegoers are just as apt to check a movie’s rating at Rotten Tomatoes, the popular movie-review aggregating website, as to read an actual review from a major news organization.
Worse, with readership plummeting, newspapers and magazines have had to drastically thin their ranks of critics. In recent months, the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, Newsweek, Newsday, the Village Voice and The Times, among other outlets, have let critics go. Meanwhile, movie marketing has never been more pervasive, and many studio summer blockbusters are now described as “critic proof,” meaning that negative reviews do nothing to affect the box office.
In this light, Lyons’ ascension to the “throne” of televised film criticism has come to represent something more than just the changing of the guard -- many view it as yet another example of the dumbing down of media and of celebrity triumphing over substance.
With his meat-and-potatoes good looks, frat-boy bonhomie and straight-down-the-pike delivery -- more reminiscent of a “SportsCenter” commentator than an erudite cultural arbiter -- Lyons is certainly not your father’s movie reviewer. But it’s his way of shrinking a sweeping critical pronouncement down to glossy sound-bite size that seems to most affront Lyons’ detractors. Especially when held up to his predecessors’ standards.
“It crystallizes everything that’s wrong with American pop culture right now,” said Scott Johnson, the blogger behind the website StopBenLyons.com. “I don’t expect to agree with a critic all the time. But his approach is to throw out blurbs just so he can get on a poster.”
S.T. VanAirsdale, senior editor of the entertainment-industry-skewering blog Defamer, framed the debate around the so-called “Ben Lyons Hate Storm” in more direct terms. “It’s a pretty microcosmic phenomenon, when you look at who hates him,” VanAirsdale said. “But for people who take film criticism seriously, he’s an imposition. If he’s established himself as the benchmark for where popular criticism is headed, we’re all kind of [in trouble].”
Setting a standard
Regime change has always been hard for fans of the show, many of whom began watching in the mid-'70s when it was hosted by Siskel and Ebert and known as “Sneak Previews.” By 1979, it had become the highest-rated weekly entertainment series in the history of public broadcasting. Evolving into “At the Movies” in 1981 -- Jeffrey Lyons was hired to appear on “Sneak Previews” when Siskel and Ebert left over a contractual dispute -- it set the standard for subsequent movie review talk shows and remains the only such program to both brand itself in the American mind and change the face of film criticism -- some might say grossly oversimplifying it -- with its patented “thumbs up, thumbs down” rating system.
“Two thumbs up conveyed a seal of approval,” said Jason E. Squire, instructor of cinema practice at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and editor of “The Movie Business Book.” “It was so powerful, the expression became part of the general lexicon.” Added Bill Mechanic, former chairman and chief executive of 20th Century Fox Filmed Entertainment: “For marketing purposes, a ‘two thumbs up’ was great to have.” (Ebert, who stopped appearing in “At the Movies” after medical issues robbed him of his voice in 2006, exercises the sole right to use his thumb for rating purposes; Siskel died in 1999. Richard Roeper joined the show in 2000, and hosted with revolving guest critics in Ebert’s absence.)
Last summer, producer Disney-ABC Domestic Television decided to take the syndicated show “in a new direction,” prompting Ebert and Roeper to announce that they were severing ties with the program. In their places, “At the Movies” executives hired Ben Mankiewicz, a host on Turner Classic Movies who is the grandson of famed screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (“Citizen Kane”) and nephew of Oscar-winning director Joseph Mankiewicz (“All About Eve”), and Lyons, a New York native whose academic pedigree consists of a few semesters at the University of Michigan and whose first professional critic gig was talking film on his father’s movie review program “Reel Talk.” The younger Lyons also reviews movies and interviews celebrities for E! Online, “E! News,” “The Daily 10" and “Smash Time Saturday’s” and hosts the game show “My Family’s Got Guts” on Nickelodeon.
Viewers haven’t been quite so rankled by Mankiewicz, 41, who comes off a bit more measured when giving his critical appraisals. (“You put anyone next to Ben Lyons and they’re going to look bulletproof,” notes VanAirsdale.) But Lyons’ installation released a torrent of negative blowback, most of it online. “I don’t like Lyons,” blogger Jeffrey Wells wrote on hollywood-elsewhere.com, “because you can tell right off the bat he’s too much of a glider and a glad-hander.” Variety.com’s deputy editor and columnist Anne Thompson also derided Lyons, describing “At the Movies” as “a train wreck,” complaining that discourse between Mankiewicz and Lyons is “dismayingly shallow.”
“It’s like Johnny Carson being replaced by Dane Cook,” said Childress, who also writes a feature called “Ben Lyons Quote of the Week” on eFilmCritic.com that deconstructs and ridicules Lyons’ critiques. “It’s going from the top echelon in the profession to the absolute lowest.”
Then there’s StopBenLyons.com. Established in September by Oakland computer programmer-turned-blogger Scott Johnson, the blog is largely devoted to highlighting Lyons’ perceived critical trespasses and advocating his dismissal. A die-hard fan of the show, Johnson was motivated to create the site by what he views as righteous indignation.
“If [Lyons] wants to sit in Siskel’s or Ebert’s seat, he’s got to prove he’s worthy of our attention,” Johnson explained. “What Ben says about movies, it’s not worthwhile. He seems to be doing the show more because he wants to be on TV than because he has something to say about the movies.”
Some of Lyons’ pronouncements certainly seem to show a certain lack of seasoning. While recently reviewing “Quantum of Solace,” he proclaimed that “GoldenEye” was his favorite James Bond film, eschewing many of the franchise’s most heralded installments. His rationale? “It was the first one for Pierce Brosnan,” Lyons said. “And that was also. . . when the first-person action video game Bond franchise was launched, which I wasted many hours of my childhood playing.”
A show’s ratings
It’s unlikely that Lyons will be mentioned in the same breath as heavyweight critics such as Ebert, who writes for the Chicago Sun-Times, the Wall Street Journal’s Joe Morgenstern, The Times’ Kenneth Turan, or the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis any time soon. But then again, you don’t see any of those critics posing for snapshots with many of the same celebrities they write about, as you do on Lyons’ blog The Lyons Den -- a professional habit that has given the reviewer a reputation for kissing the hand that feeds. (See the accompanying article.)
But critical standards aren’t the only issues being debated when it comes to “At the Movies.” Some industry observers think that the show’s relevancy may have gone with the dawn of the Information Age. “I . . . wonder if the era of sitting passively in front of a TV screen and listening to a couple of guys trade opinions about movies has the same vitality that it had when Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel started ‘Sneak Previews’ on PBS in 1977,” Wells wrote on the Hollywood-Elsewhere blog. ". . . Audiences these days like to talk back and argue and engage interactively.”
The show’s numbers are far below what they used to be. Ratings for the new “At the Movies” are at 1.8 million total viewers, down 21% compared with the same period last year, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. Comparative viewership also dropped by double digits in every key demographic except for males 18 to 34, for whom it’s down only 4%. A spokeswoman for ABC Media Productions, which oversees “At the Movies,” pointed out the revamped program has shown improvement among total viewers since its September premiere.
Disney-ABC Television Group’s Brian Frons, who heads up the creation, production and delivery of shows for ABC Media Productions, voices unqualified support for Lyons.
“This is a guy who, if you sit and talk with him, he really does have an enormous love and knowledge base of movies,” Frons said. “Did he spend 20 years as critic for a major newspaper? No. He’s very much of the TV generation who don’t spend time reading newspapers. I think we have a guy who is giving the information that audiences want to hear about film to make decisions about what to see.”
Staff writer Scott Collins provided additional reporting.