Film world: prepare for the war of the thumbs (again).
Roger Ebert announced Friday on his Chicago Sun-Times blog that "At the Movies" would return to PBS stations in January.
Produced by Ebert and his wife, Chaz, the weekly half-hour film review program — revamped as "Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies" — will continue the format first made famous by Ebert and the late Gene Siskel three decades ago, this time with film critics Christy Lemire of the Associated Press and Elvis Mitchell of NPR debating and issuing thumbs up or thumbs down reviews from red movie theater seats.
The announcement comes less than a month after distributor Disney- ABC Domestic Television broadcast the final episode of the long-running show, which had gone into syndication and was most recently hosted by Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and A.O. Scott of the New York Times.
"At the Movies" has gone through several revisions and name changes over the years. Before Phillips and Scott, the show was anchored by two young hosts, Ben Lyons of " E! Entertainment" and Ben Mankiewicz, a former co-host of the "Young Turks" radio program on Air America; the two took over the slot once filled by Ebert and Richard Roeper, both writers at the Chicago Sun-Times. Roeper had stepped in after the death of Siskel in 1999.
The decision to bring back the show, Ebert said, is an attempt to shift the lens back to cinematic content.
"Most movie coverage on TV is celeb-driven gossip and chatter," Ebert, 68, said in an e-mail to The Times. "It's obsessed with box-office numbers. It's always upbeat. The critics are often not qualified. Despite all the programming out there, there's nothing really like it on TV."
Ebert noted that the format he and Siskel created worked for more than 30 years "What killed it was the attempt to take it in a new direction, which translated into Ben Lyons driving away loyal viewers. Tony Scott and Michael Phillips returned to our traditional standards, but by then the show had lost many of its good time slots."
He's hoping that returning to public television will allow the new show to claim better and more consistent time slots in more markets. The new version will be produced at the original series' birthplace, WTTW Chicago, and broadcast on PBS stations nationwide. Along with critics Lemire and Mitchell, the show will also include contributions from Kim Morgan, a Los Angeles writer who runs the website sunsetgun.com, and Omar Moore, a San Francisco lawyer who writes film essays at popcornreel.com.
In addition to his belief in the original format, Ebert cited "a growing interest in new ways of viewing movies (streaming, on demand, red boxes, Netflix, Amazon, etc.) that has revived interest in movies not necessarily in first run" as a reason that prompted him to bring back the show.
The evolution of "At the Movies" can be traced back to the 1970s-era program, "Opening Soon at a Theater Near You" and then "Sneak Previews," shown on the Chicago PBS affiliate WTTW, where conservative reviewer Siskel, of the Chicago Tribune, along with his brash co-host Ebert, of the Chicago Sun-Times, presented viewers passionate debates over the latest cinematic offerings.
"This is the rebirth of a dream," Ebert said in a separate statement.
A pilot of the rebooted program was taped in early summer. In it, Ebert is shown sitting behind a desk, typing his review of a documentary as a computer voice says the words he types.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning film critic, who has not been seen on the show since 2006 because of illness, will employ the computer voice generator and appear on every episode with segments titled "Roger's Office" dedicated to classic, overlooked and new films.
But don't expect to see one of the most recognizable thumbs in America to make a weekly appearance — he's leaving that to Mitchell and Lemire.
"They'll be awarding the thumbs," he said. "And you can't have three thumbs."