by Lewis Lazare Chicago Sun-Times Media & Marketing Columnist
Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz, co-hosts for the past year of the weekly “At the Movies” movie review show, have been sacked, effective immediately. When the 24th season of the show premieres on Sept. 5, Chicago Tribune movie critic Michael Phillips and New York Times critic A.O. Scott will be seated in the balcony — or whatever’s left of it.
The changes come after a shaky year of “At the Movies” episodes, in which Mankiewicz and Lyons tried to carry on the review show created by legendary Sun-Times movie critic Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel, who was for many years the Trib’s chief movie critic.
With Lyons and Mankiewicz at the helm for the past year, “At the Movies” had suffered a ratings decline that apparently became irreversible and unacceptable to executives at Disney-ABC Television, which produces and distributes the show nationally. The version of “At the Movies” with Mankiewicz and Lyons also was a hokier, jazzed-up version of the original concept, which originally featured Siskel and Ebert simply debating with each other the merits of new movie releases.
After Siskel’s death in 1999, Ebert then teamed with Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper. But starting in 2006, when Ebert began treatment for thyroid cancer and subsequently lost his voice, Roeper worked for a couple of years with a rotating series of co-hosts that at various times included both Scott and Phillips. Last year, just before the host change to Lyons and Mankiewicz, the Chicago-based Phillips had become the de facto “At the Movies” co-host with Roeper.
The switch to Phillips and Scott appears to be part of an effort to return the show to its beginnings, featuring two movie critics with substantive credentials, though it’s unclear yet whether the new duo will bring enough presence and punch to the proceedings to significantly boost the show’s ratings.
Tossing compliments at each other, Scott described Phillips as “one of the most intelligent and wittiest critics around,” while Phillips hailed Scott as “one of the sharpest critical voices in the nation. Roeper declined comment about the latest round of host changes for “At the Movies.”
Phillips and Scott will "take the series back to its roots of one-on-one film debate that was established when the show first began with Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel," Brian Frons, president of daytime for the Disney-ABC Television Group, said in a statement. “They are regarded by millions of people as authorities in film criticism. We’ve decided to return the show to its original essence –- two traditional film critics discussing current motion picture and DVD releases."