At the Movies: The Curtain Falls on a Chicago Institution

05/30/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

At the Movies, now in its last picture shows, was a Chicago innovation. You'd think a talk show devoted to the serious and passionate discussion of film would originate in Los Angeles, but At the Movies' earliest incarnation premiered in 1975 on local PBS station WTTW. And in its Siskel-Ebert heyday, it presented the authentic voice and character of the city that was at odds with the popular image of Chicago as a haven for crime and corruption.

Siskel from the Tribune and Ebert from the Sun-Times were not Hollywood glamor boys. They were newspaper men from the Front Page tradition. They were smart, funny, tough, and combative. But unlike our politicians, they couldn't be bought. "They've hated plenty of my movies," producer Harvey Weinstein offered when I interviewed him on the occasion of At the Movies' 20th anniversary, "You can't influence them. Lord knows, I've tried. [...] They've built trust with their audience, so their audience has become more adventurous."

Siskel and Ebert became the country's most recognized, respected, and popular film critics and the unlikeliest of pop culture icons. They did panel with Johnny, were caricatured in Mad magazine, and spoofed on SCTV. Perhaps their finest hour was the episode of The Critic, in which they voiced themselves (check it out on YouTube).

I first became aware that At the Movies had grown from local treasure to nationwide phenomenon in 1980. I worked in sales for a non-theatrical 16mm film distributor. On this sales call, I could not convince a rural Texas community college student programmer to add Oh! Heavenly Dog to his film schedule. Despite the star power of Benji and Chevy Chase, my pitch was doomed. For the first time, I heard the objection: "Siskel and Ebert didn't like it."

Subsequent At the Movies hosts have not wielded the same influence, but the show endured. Only a handful of programs, including Meet the Press, The Tonight Show, 60 Minutes and Saturday Night Live have been on the air longer. The iconic balcony will be closed in August, but At the Movies' legacy is secure. By spotlighting and raising awareness of films that don't open on 3,000 screens, the series could inspire even the most casual of moviegoers to broaden their cinematic horizons.

The cancellation of At the Movies is another ominous portent for the future of serious film criticism. The announcement came on the heels of Variety's firing of Todd McCarthy, its venerable film critic of 31 years. But Ebert, who may have been unable to speak following his cancer surgery, but has never lost his voice, is not going quietly or without a fight. He reports that he has ambitious plans for a new movie review program. That's the Chicago way.