At the Movies returns in 2011 with new cast, Ebert producing

By Dru Sefton

Renowned movie critic Roger Ebert, who literally owns the trademarked thumbs-up/thumbs-down gesture, is returning to public TV, where he started his on-air career 35 years ago.

Ebert (standing) gives a thumbs-up to Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies, coming to pubTV in January through American Public Television. Reviewers (from the left) include: Kim Morgan, Christy Lemire, Elvis Mitchell and Omar Moore. (Photo: Howard Tullman, Tribeca/Flashpoint.)

Ebert, standing, gives a thumbs-up to Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies, coming to pubTV in January through American Public Television. Reviewers, from left, include Kim Morgan, Christy Lemire, Elvis Mitchell and Omar Moore. (Photo: Howard Tullman, Tribeca/Flashpoint)

Starting in January, Ebert will produce the weekly show Roger Ebert Presents At the Movies, and do a monologue for each episode. The balcony front-row reviewers will be Christy Lemire of The Associated Press and Elvis Mitchell of The Treatment on KCRW with additional opinions from movie bloggers Kim Morgan and Omar Moore. Ebert said he’d known Lemire and Mitchell for some time. “Kim and Omar I met online and admired.”

The show will be distributed through American Public Television.

Thirty-five years ago, Ebert and the late Gene Siskel began their long run on TV at Chicago’s WTTW, and Ebert Productions has returned to WTTW as its presenting station. Ebert said in his blog that he’s seeking a production site in Chicago.  He isn’t coming back to public TV for sentimental reasons.

Public TV “gives us better time slots in more markets than [commercial] syndication, where weekly half hours are often shoved around or bounced for infomercials,” Ebert told Current.

When Siskel and Ebert left WTTW for commercial TV in 1982, they objected to terms of their contract with the station, according to a history of the show by the Museum of Broadcast Communications.

Movies have changed a lot since Siskel and Ebert’s first show, initially titled Opening Soon at a Theater Near You, debuted in 1975 as a monthly offering on WTTW. It’s been widely credited as the first movie review program. When Ebert’s latest show premieres in January 2011, it will feature not only the latest films but also new DVD releases and on-demand viewing picks. There’ll be special segments on classics, and an expanded website.

Ebert will have a presence on screen, but not with his own voice. He’s been battling cancers of the thyroid, salivary glands and jaw since 2002, and by 2007, after numerous surgeries, had lost his ability to speak. But he’ll write a monologue, set to pictures, that he will speak through his surprisingly natural-sounding computerized voice.

In August he hinted on his blog that a new show was coming, and explained why the electronic voice won’t enable him to join the crew as an on-air reviewer. “Some people have the idea that a computer program has magically allowed me to speak again. That will never happen. I type, and the words come out. No one can type fast enough for conversational repartee. With the new software . . . the words will come out sounding like me. That’s huge. It will work well on the new show in voice-over narration of TV packages.”

Ebert’s wife, Chaz, is the producer. “I have my hands full being a film critic,” as Ebert told Current in an e-mail Sept. 16 on his trip home from the Toronto Film Festival. He and Chaz “work together on everything,” Ebert said. “She’s been dealing with physical production details, studio use, production staff, everything. As a lawyer, she is well-qualified, and she has gone with me to most of the screenings and film festivals all these years, and knows countless people in the film industry.”

This will be the latest incarnation of a show with many titles and personalities throughout the years. Ebert, then and now the film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, partnered with his Chicago Tribune rival, Gene Siskel, in the first and subsequent versions of the program. After two seasons, Opening Soon at a Theater Near You was renamed Sneak Previews and appeared biweekly on PBS. In its fourth season it was running on 180 to 190 stations and drawing the largest audience of any weekly entertainment series in the history of PBS. In 1980, WTTW decided to syndicate the show commercially, and Siskel and Ebert departed for their own version syndicated through Tribune Entertainment and later Disney’s Buena Vista arm. In 1999, Siskel died from complications following surgery for a brain tumor.

Ebert’s Sept. 10 announcement of his return to public TV generated a buzz among television critics. Aaron Barnhart, who writes for the Kansas City Star and blogs at his TVBarn, summed it up: “I think this will be one of the most important offerings made to public television stations in years.”

Questions, thumbs, popcorn? seftond@current.org
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