At the Movies: 1975-2010

In 1994, I was seventeen years old.  One evening I was up late, flipping through the TV channels and I stumbled across the show At the Movies with Siskel and Ebert.  I’d never actually watched the show before, but I did know of it.  Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were the owners of the two most famous thumbs in America, you know?  Turns out, I actually liked the show.  So I made a point of watching it whenever I could.

Their support of a certain movie got me out of a movie rut.  When I watched this particular movie, it really opened my eyes to the fact that movies which don’t seem to be about a subject I like can actually be good.  I learned that documentary features can be good actual movies, rather than the dry boring crap we had to watch when we had substitute teachers in school.  To this day, Hoop Dreams is one of my all time favorite movies.  And I can personally thank Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert for constantly fighting for that little movie and urging people to see it.  I’m proof that sometimes that works.

In 1999, Gene Siskel died, but Roger Ebert carried on, initially going through a round robin of guest hosts.  He finally settled on Richard Roeper as his balcony-mate and for the next six years, At the Movies continued in the same format with Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper.  I must admit, it was the show with these two that was my favorite of all the versions of At the Movies.  Ebert is accessibly intellectual and Roeper is just plain funny (and not that bad to look at either!)\

As Ebert’s health issues became worse, Richard Roeper continued, also with a round robin of guests.  Two of the most frequest guests were Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and A.O. Scott of the New York Times.  A contract dispute with Buena Vista Television (who syndicated At the Movies) shut the show down for a while, until it was brought back with Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz.  We will just refer to this period of At the Movies as the dark period. And let us never speak of it again.

Less than a year later, the Bens were (Thank God!) fired and yet another version of At the Movies was introduced, this time with Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and Scott of the NY Times.  It was back and it was nearly as good as it had been in the days of Ebert and Roeper.

Until last week that is; when the balcony closed for good.  The show, which was so integral to my late adolescence, has been canceled.

I can’t really explain how bummed I am about this.  It’s such a weird thing, to have been so attached to this show for so long and to have it just taken away from me like this. Why did it mean so much to me?  Well, I grew up in a small town, and in the pre-internet age, I had no way of knowing about indie movies or arthouse films.  Siskel and Ebert made a movie like Hoop Dreams accessible to me.  Sure, I never got to see it in the theater, but I was able to remember it and look for the video when it was released.

From 1994-1996 I worked in a video store.  (Fun fact: the independently owned video store where I worked is still open.  Despite the fact that the town’s other video stores, a Blockbuster and a Hollywood have long since shut down.  Score one for locally owned businesses!) I could watch Siskel and Ebert, learn what indies were coming out and get them from the store.

But it wasn’t really just about the movies.  It was the personalities that made the show so great.  (In my area, we were stuck with the shittiest of all local film critics, Arch Campbell.  Who, somehow, still has a career.) Siskel and Ebert had some legendary arguments, but you could see how much each respected the other.  And all the other hosts (with the exception of the incredibly dull ignoramuses of Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz) have followed suit.  Movies became accessible.  Up until Siskel and Ebert’s thumbs became famous, film critics existed in some kind of weird ivory tower.  But movies for the masses can be good, and none of these hosts ever forgot that.  Movies were taken both seriously and as entertainment.   If a movie was bad and it could have been better, it was just a damn shame.

Roger Ebert seems to be enjoying a new weird celebrity, and is the author of a wondeful blog I’d urge you to check out.  He is, I believe, still mute from his health issues.  Roeper, Phillips and Scott are still writing criticism.  If there’s any hope for television film critics, it’s that all three will have future careers reviewing for the masses on TV once again.

So join me in toasting a show that lasted for thirty-five years, countless hosts, thirty-five Oscar races, and God knows how many station moves.  Here’s to you, At the Movies.

*Anyone interested in film critic TV shows should check out the Rotten Tomatoes TV show on the Current Network if you have it.  Not quite as intellectual as At the Movies, it still manages to be smart and funny and long on personality thanks to the charming hosts, Brett Ehrlich and Ellen Fox.  Also, there’s more snark than At the Movies ever had.

**Seriously,  watching documentaries on subjects you thought you had no interest in?  It’s awesome.  If you don’t mind, I’d like to recommend the following:
1-Hoop Dreams
2-The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters
3-Kicking It
5-Why We Fight
6-The War Room
7-The Atomic Cafe

***Also, you can check out the following by Ebert, who really is a fabulous writer.


About nikkihb

Wife. Mother. Reader. Blogger.
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12 Responses to At the Movies: 1975-2010

  1. TS Hendrik says:

    It certainly was an influential show. A lot of the landscape as it exists in film critique today exists because of the show. That is something else, that the indie video store in your town is still open. All that's around here for miles are countless redboxes. It's a shame really. So many good films that will go unnoticed as a result.I also love the Rotten Tomatoes show. Brett Ehrlich cracks me up. I like his viral video film school segments on infomania too.

  2. I will miss this show, but all good things eventually must come to and end. Dreaded DreamsPetunia Scareum

  3. Steve G. says:

    I loved At The Movies, and I still love Ebert's writing. Your Movie Sucks is an incredible evisceration of the worst of Hollywood, and he does it in such a valid way. His reviews of Deuce Bigelow: European Gigolo and North are epic for their smackdown-ish nature: of his video reviews with Siskel are still online and awesome. I loved how they both gave popular movies a shot, and unlike the "snootier" reviewers like Dana Stevens of Slate, just because something was a blockbuster, they gave it a chance anyway.

  4. E says:

    King of Kong is, hands down, my favorite documentary ever. DAMN YOU BILLY MITCHELL!

  5. My parents always referred to the show as "Fat Guy and Skinny Guy" and my mother watched it religiously every Sunday afternoon, though she rarely went to the movies (though we rented a lot). I believe she was a fan from the beginning, but stopped watching when Ebert stepped down. I can remember, clearly, her ironing while watching all through my childhood. It's pretty well cemented as a consistent, good memory of my mother and my life.

  6. Sadako says:

    I never watched when Siskel was around–wasn't into it back then, but I will always remember Ebert and Roeper. Good old Ebert! Did you ever see the Critic episode where Jay meets them both and helps them reconcile when they argue? It's really sweet.

  7. nikki says:

    @ TS Hendrick – I love the chemistry between Brett and Ellen on RT. That's really what makes the whole show worth it. @E – King of Kong is one of those docs I point out to people when talking about watching docs even though you think you have no interest in the subject. I can't believe how emotionally invested I got in watching these two guys play a freaking out-of-date video game. Billy Mitchell is the king of all douchebags. @Sadako – I've seen every episode of the critic. Several times over. @SteveG – I loved This Movie Sucks. And my husband had me listen to a clip where Ebert got into it with Rob Schneider on the Howard Stern Show and basically pwned him!

  8. Kevin C says:

    Had no idea it was cancelled. Been catching it at the gym on Sunday afternoons. I would agree that Siskel and Ebert were more entertaining for their disagreements then their critiques most of the time. Ebert and Roeper were far more well suited for an respectful banter and thoughtful analysis.As for Ben Lyons I don't get your reason for hating the playa. He's obviously the greatest critic of his generation. Anyone who calls I Am Legend "One of the greatest films of all time" has my respect (douche). Check out his official fan page for analysis of his world class style:…and is it just me or does Roeper look like Dr. Drew's younger brother?Nice blog Nikk!

  9. Martha says:

    Thank you for this great review of a much loved TV show because of its great hosts. Thanks also for the blog visit too.

  10. Darrin.. says:

    Love this show also! I'll never forget being 13 in 1983, and watching the hour long tribute they did for Return of the Jedi. So sad that their dynamic faded when Siskel passed. Super sad that the show is gone. =^(

  11. Disneypal says:

    I loved At The Movies but had a hard time finding it when the new hosts recently took over (they kept moving it around in my town) – I hate that it was canceled – when Siskel and Ebert hosted, I never missed a single episode

  12. maryng says:

    Ben Lyons does suck, but I think Ben Manckiewicz just had the poor fortune to be paired with him. He does know his stuff, but may not have quite the personality of Siskel, Ebert, Roeper, et al. I like him on TCM.

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