No more ‘thumbs’ at the movies as Lyons, Mankiewicz prepare to take over review show

By Lynn Elber

LOS ANGELES – Over the years, TV’s best-known movie review show has gone from hosts Siskel and Ebert to Ebert and Roeper to Roeper and guest critics – and now it’s Lyons and Mankiewicz.

Ben Lyons, a Hollywood reporter and film critic for “E! News” and others, and Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz will take over “At the Movies” when its new season begins in September, Disney-ABC Domestic Television said Tuesday.

Don’t look for the syndicated program’s “thumbs up-thumbs down” ratings to return. Roger Ebert shares a trademark lock on it with the widow of his late co-host, Gene Siskel, and Ebert has said they’re hanging on to it.

“It’s an awesome responsibility,” Mankiewicz, 41, told The Associated Press. “We’re going to try to reach an audience that cares about movies” – the same audience as before, he said, but perhaps bigger.

“This is the pinnacle of being a film critic,” said Lyons, 26. “Being here in L.A. on studio lots and meeting with executives, I sort of have inside information that will make the show grow and continue its legacy.”

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Both Lyons and Mankiewicz have show business and media roots.

Lyons’ father is film critic Jeffrey Lyons, and his grandfather was New York Post columnist Leonard Lyons.

Mankiewicz’s grandfather, Herman Mankiewicz, won an Academy Award for the screenplay for “Citizen Kane” (with Orson Welles); his great-uncle, writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz, won Oscars for “All About Eve and “A Letter to Three Wives,” and cousin Tom Mankiewicz wrote several James Bond movies including “The Man with the Golden Gun” and “Diamonds are Forever.”

Ben Mankiewicz’s father, Frank, was campaign director for 1972 Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern’s presidential campaign and was Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s press secretary.

The new hosts will continue to debate the merits of current movies and DVD releases but other segments will be added to the show, including a “critics roundup” in which the hosts are joined via satellite by reviewers from around the country, Disney said.

A revamped set, music and graphics also are planned.

The original TV show was born when Chicago newspaper critics Siskel and Ebert started “Sneak Previews” in 1975 for Chicago station WTTW. They moved to PBS nationally in 1978 with the renamed “At the Movies” and then went commercial with Tribune Syndication.

Walt Disney Co.’s Disney-ABC Domestic Television, then called Buena Vista Television, acquired the show in 1986, renaming it “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies.”

Siskel died of a brain tumor in 1999; the following year, film critic Richard Roeper became Ebert’s co-host.

Ebert has been battling cancer in recent years, undergoing a series of operations in which doctors removed 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 the Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Sun-Times critic continues to write reviews and has published a number of books.

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.

The show moved to a “see-it-or-skip-it” shorthand.

On Sunday, Roeper announced he was quitting the show. A day later, Ebert said that he was cutting ties with it. They both took issue with the show’s new direction and Roeper hinted they could team up again.

Their concerns may be unwarranted, according to Mankiewicz.

“I think this talk of an entirely new format is a little silly, and the crux of the show is going to be two guys arguing about a movie,” Mankiewicz told the AP Tuesday.

If the “thumbs” approach itself makes a comeback it won’t be on the Disney show – Ebert said Monday the company can’t use the trademarked approach.

Lyons, who’s been doing red-carpet interviews and reviews for “E! News” and has a blog and a series on E! Online, has appeared on “Good Morning America,” MTV’s “Your Movie Show” and “MSNBC at the Movies.”

Mankiewicz was the host of “The Young Turks” on Sirius Satellite Radio, a talk show discussing politics, film and pop culture. Before joining Turner Classic Movies, he was a reporter and anchor for WCSC-TV in Charleston, N.C., and anchored a daily news magazine at WAMI-TV Miami.

The new season begins Sept. 6.