Ebert following Roeper’s lead by quitting ‘At the Movies’

By Don Babwin

CHICAGO – Famed film critic Roger Ebert is leaving the balcony – but hinting that both he and his famous thumbs are not finished with television.

Ebert announced Monday that he is cutting ties with the nationally syndicated television program he and the late critic Gene Siskel made famous, a day after Richard Roeper said he was quitting.

In an e-mail to The Associated Press, Ebert said Disney-ABC Domestic Television, which owns “At the Movies with Ebert and Roeper,” has decided to take the program in a new direction.

“I will no longer be associated with it,” Ebert said.

He did not immediately elaborate. But it was clear the Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Sun-Times critic wanted the show to remain as it was when he and fellow Chicago newspaper film critic Gene Siskel first hit the airwaves on PBS in 1975.

“Gene and I felt the formula was simplicity itself: Two film critics, sitting across the aisle from each other in a movie balcony, debating the new films of the week,” Ebert wrote. “We developed an entirely new concept for TV.”

Ebert is a trademark holder on the signature “thumbs up-thumbs down” judgment that he and Siskel made part of each film review. Last year, as he negotiated a new contract with Disney-ABC Domestic Television, Ebert, according to the Walt Disney-owned company, had “exercised his right to withhold use of the ‘thumbs’ until” he had a new contract. Ebert subsequently has said the show could continue to use the “thumbs” during negotiations and that he never withheld their use.

On Monday, he said he has plans for those famous digits.

“The trademark still belongs to me and Marlene Iglitzen, Gene’s widow, and the thumbs will return,” he wrote. “We are discussing possibilities, and plan to continue the show’s tradition.”

“Disney,” he said, “cannot use the thumbs.”

Ebert did not elaborate on future possibilities. Nor did he say what if any role Roeper, whose work he praised, will have.

But in his own announcement that he was leaving the program, Roeper – a Sun-Times columnist who signed on in 2000, after Siskel’s 1999 death – hinted that perhaps his partnership with Ebert may not be over.

Roeper said he planned to “proceed elsewhere with my ninth year as the co-host of a movie review show that honors the standards established by Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert more than 30 years ago,” adding that he would disclose soon details about such a program.

Roeper did not immediately return a call for comment on Monday. His statement said he was leaving after failing to agree on a contract extension with Disney-ABC Domestic Television, and that his last appearance on the show will air the weekend of Aug. 16-17.

A Disney spokeswoman did not immediately return calls for comment on the latest developments as well as whether the show would continue either in its current form or a new one.

Ebert said he is in the dark about any plans for the show, saying Disney has not discussed any with him.

“All I know for sure is, the show is not being taken in its current direction,” he said in a second e-mail.

Ebert’s announcement brings to a close a chapter in one of the longest running shows in television history. In 1975, Siskel and Ebert, two competing Chicago newspaper film reviewers, launched a program on Chicago’s public broadcasting’s WTTW. The two jumped to commercial television through the Tribune Co.’s TV syndication wing in 1982, switching to Disney in 1986.

The pair became stars in their own right, and their “two thumbs” reviews became one of the most recognizable assessments in the history of film criticism – with movies trumpeting a “Two Thumbs Up” as part of their own advertising.

After Siskel died of a brain tumor in 1999, Roeper was selected from among a large group of contenders to be his permanent replacement on the show.

In recent years, Ebert has been battling cancer. He has undergone a series of operations, with doctors removing a cancerous growth from his salivary gland and part of his right jaw.

He has been unable to appear on the show since doctors performed surgery in July 2006 that left him unable to speak. But he continues to churn out reviews, and has published a number of books.

Ebert said Monday that he has remained active with the show “behind the scenes,” and praised the work of Roeper and the guest co-hosts, such as Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips and New York Times critic A.O. Scott, in his absence.