Roger Ebert retools “At the Movies”

It’s not often you can say a show is adapting itself for a new generation while at the same time going back to its roots, but that just about sums up what’s going on with At the Movies.

Having begun in 1975 on WTTW, the Chicago PBS station, as Opening Soon at a Theater Near You, the show starred a pair of fresh-faced Chicago movie critics named Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. It introduced “thumbs up” and “thumbs down” into the pop-culture lexicon and endured many incarnations over the next 30-plus years, undergoing title changes that included Sneak Previews, At the Movies With Siskel & Ebert, Siskel & Ebert, Roger Ebert and the Movies, Ebert & Roeper At the Movies, Ebert & Roeper and At the Movies With Ebert & Roeper. There was also the jump to syndication, the production of the show by Disney, the 1999 death of Siskel, and Ebert’s 2006 onscreen departure after numerous bouts with cancer left him unable to speak. Following an acrimonious split with Disney in 2008, Ebert took his trademarked thumbs with him and the show went in a decidedly different direction, making a misguided ploy for younger viewers with the hiring of E! red-carpet reporter Ben Lyons and Turner Classic Movies’ Ben Mankiewicz. The Bens lasted one dismal season before the show returned to form with Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune and A.O. Scott of The New York Times. But the ratings weren’t enough to keep the shop open, and Disney shuttered the show last August.

Many believed it wasn’t just At the Movies that died, but also the basic concept of a television show centered around film criticism. With the Internet providing access to a seemingly unlimited amount of bloggers, and the perceived growing disconnect between critical opinion and box-office performance, the conventional wisdom was that the format’s time had simply passed.

Ebert had other ideas. The show — his show — would be reborn, not by stubbornly clinging to its old formula, but by embracing change and the myriad ways people talk about movies these days. Ebert is a living example of this, having become an online force in the past few years, forging a devoted following with his prolific, thoughtful blog entries that often tackles topics beyond film, including politics, religion and an especially thorny debate on whether video games could ever be considered art.

Ebert and the new team

Ebert Presents At the Movies, which premieres Jan. 21, marks the show’s return to PBS (and the same WTTW studio where it all started), and while it will adhere to the traditional format of two critics debating the week’s current crop of movies, it will also include a few new wrinkles and personalities to suit the Internet Age. In addition to having selected the critics, Ebert will appear onscreen in a weekly segment using text-speech software to provide his voice.

The principal critics, who will be delivering the thumbs-up thumbs-down verdicts, are Christy Lemire of The Associated Press and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, a Chicago-based critic and essayist whose work appears on MUBI.com. They will hand the show off to a stable of contributors, including Kim Morgan, who operates the Sunset Gun blog; Omar Moore, an attorney who also runs The Popcorn Reel website; Mirrorfilm.org founder Kartina Richardson; CBS news analyst Jeff Greenfield; Nell Minow of Beliefnet.com; and David Poland of Movie City News.

The New Guy

While Lemire is a known quantity, having written nationally distributed reviews for 12 years and racked up numerous television appearances — including several fill-in spots for Ebert on At the Movies — Vishnevetsky is a wild card. The 24-year-old Soviet-born cineaste tends to tread most heavily in the realm of the obscure (think independent, foreign or silent movies), but his breadth of knowledge won Ebert over and persuaded him that Vishnevetsky would be the perfect replacement for Elvis Mitchell, who left after taping the pilot.

Vishnevetsky knows his suddenly high profile is an unlikely development, but says he’s using it as a means of motivation.

“I was surprised [at winning the job], but at the same time when someone kind of puts that amount of trust in you, it almost invigorates you,” he says. “It makes you want to do your best. Obviously there’s a great deal of pressure, but at the same time you can’t let that pressure get to you. You have to keep going, otherwise it’s going to stall everything else.”

With no prior television experience, Vishnevetsky knew he would have to work to adapt his verbose style of critique to the PBS audience. That process started with the auditions, which were essentially mock versions of the show.

“You have to get a lot of ideas across very concisely in a very short period of time,” he says. “I’ve been working on adapting it. … Obviously my writing online tends to be fairly wordy. Not only is it best not to talk that way on television, you can’t actually talk the way I write. At the same time you can get into a lot of ideas without needing all the parantheticals and tangents.

“[But] I think it’s going relatively well. Part of what makes the performance, though, is … you’re constantly responding to another person. When you write, it’s just you and a reader. On the show it’s you and another person in a conversation. It’s not about just repeating whatever points you already have made. It’s about responding to what another person is saying, building on top of that, and having to think very, very quickly. You have to be very concise, and it’s not just about expressing things through words. There’s a lot of things you have to do with your face. There’s a lot of small gestures that play into it. When it all comes together, it’s like a cross between improv theater and speech. It’s a very intense format.”

Lemire is full of kudos for her young costar, who she calls “astonishingly mature for his age” and “a real intellectual.”

“I was impressed with the fact that he challenged me,” she says. “I’ve been doing this a lot longer … and he was never deferential to me. He challenged me, and was absolutely my equal. It was very exciting.”

The temptation may exist to graft a traditional media vs. new media dynamic between the two, along with pitting Vishnevetsky’s arthouse tendencies vs. Lemire’s more necessarily populist approach. But both say they get along well and that their differences of opinion will be discussed with respect.

“As critics, we’re complete polar opposites,” Vishnevetsky says. “We come from completely different backgrounds. We come from very different ideas of what criticism is about, of what movies are about. Even watching the same movie, I don’t think we see the same things. … But I’m thankful for that, because often [she sees] things I didn’t even think of.”

“He’s not like this uppity young punk,” Lemire says. “It’s not like that at all. He is extremely confident in his opinions, and he can prove them and he will make you prove your own. That is what will make it exciting, is that we get along with each other, but he’s not going to go easy on me, and I won’t go easy on him. Hopefully there will be that kind of fun friction that gave the show its name 35 years ago.”