A new era for Ebert-less ‘At the Movies’

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

“At the Movies,” the syndicated series that introduced the TV-watching masses to passionate on-air debates about film, is about to get a major face-lift.

Disney Domestic Television announced Tuesday that critic Roger Ebert -- who’s been off the show since 2006 due to illness -- and current partner Richard Roeper would be replaced with two younger hosts, Ben Lyons of “E! Entertainment” and Ben Mankiewicz, a former co-host of the “Young Turks” radio program on Air America who has hosted for Turner Classic Movies. Ebert and Roeper, both writers at the Chicago Sun-Times, had revealed separately this week that they would exit the program.

FOR THE RECORD: This article incorrectly names the company that produces the show. The company is Disney-ABC Domestic Television, not Disney Domestic Television.

In addition, “At the Movies,” which has gone through several name and format changes over the years, will get a new executive producer and new sets. Although the program will still be produced in Chicago -- its home since Ebert and his original co-host, the late Chicago Tribune critic Gene Siskel, launched a predecessor show on the local public television station 33 years ago -- the show could move in the future to Los Angeles, where Lyons and Mankiewicz are based, according to Ann Lewis Roberts, senior vice president at Disney’s Buena Vista Productions.

For all that, the studio and the new hosts said worries that the program would be “dumbed down” were misguided.

“We are not re-imagining the show, we’re just going to add some more information,” Roberts said in a phone interview. For instance, one new segment will feature a “critics’ round-up,” in which the hosts will interview colleagues via satellite to hear their opinions of new films.

“It’s not true that the wheel is getting reinvented here,” Mankiewicz, 41, the grandson of “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, said of the new format, which premieres the weekend of Sept. 6. “That’s just wrong.” (Lyons, 25, is the son of film critic Jeffrey Lyons.)

However, it’s clear that the departures of Roeper and especially Ebert, a 66-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and a revered figure among American film enthusiasts, left some hard feelings among some, starting with the outgoing hosts themselves.

Ebert’s complications from cancer treatment, which left him unable to speak, led Disney to cover for his absence with a series of fill-in hosts, most recently the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips.

Roeper, 48, was negotiating with the studio for a new deal but the two sides could not agree on terms. He now plans to try to sell a show “very similar” to “At the Movies,” he wrote in an e-mail to this column. “I think Disney’s new show speaks for itself,” he added.

Meanwhile, the studio and Ebert had an embarrassing dust-up over the use of the show’s familiar “two thumbs up” ratings system, the trademark to which Ebert owns with Siskel’s widow, Marlene Iglitzen. Disney eventually abandoned the thumbs-up system and now uses a “see it, rent it, skip it” designation instead.

In a message posted on his website, Ebert said that Disney had chosen to take the show “in a new direction. . . . I will no longer be associated with it,” he wrote.

The show does not have the reach it once did. This season, “At the Movies” averaged 2.3 million viewers, down from 2.8 million in the 2004-05 season, the last before Ebert’s illness, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The changes in personnel and format have brought scorn from some film lovers, especially amid signs that newspapers and magazines are dramatically reducing the space available for film reviewing, mainstream critics have suffered a decline in influence and many longtime reviewers, such as Newsweek’s David Ansen, are exiting their posts.

Film blogger David Poland dismissed “At the Movies” as “dead” with Ebert and Roeper gone, and added that the new version “isn’t really worth getting too worked up about . . . it will be gone in two years and forgotten by October.”

But Mankiewicz, with his background in talk radio, may not give up without a fight. When asked how the show will change, he couldn’t resist a little sarcasm.

“There’s gonna be Jell-O wrestling, obviously,” Mankiewicz joked. “It’s got to appeal to a younger demo.”