The national outpouring of grief and praise in reaction to the death of Roger Ebert signaled the film critic’s ultimate victory in his long-running competition with cross-town Chicago rival (and on-air TV partner) Gene Siskel. When Siskel died of a brain tumor in 1999 his passing provoked few if any front page tributes, no effusive presidential proclamation, and scant sentiments like the LA Times headline anointing Ebert as “First Citizen Critic and Father to Us All.”
In a sense, this contrast seems surprising. Siskel succumbed at age 53, when the dueling duo stood at the pinnacle of media prominence and their syndicated show Siskel & Ebert & the Movies still aired on stations around the country. On the other hand, Ebert faced a sharply declining TV presence during the decade he gallantly battled cancer – especially after losing the ability to speak and relying on an eerily synthesized version of his own voice.
In part, this display of courage, grace and a peerless work ethic helps explain the emotional response to Ebert’s loss; the final phase of his career offered as much inspiration as any movie melodrama he ever reviewed. But his death also resonated widely because of his unmistakable status as the last of a breed of powerful celebrity film critics.
I first met Roger when he interviewed me for the Chicago Sun-Times in 1978 about a silly book I had written with my kid brother, Harry, called The 50 Worst Films of All Time. Seven years later, after he and Siskel left their PBS show Sneak Previews for a new program in commercial syndication, I took over the “aisle seat” he had formally occupied and kept that chair for the next 12 years with my broadcast partner, Jeffrey Lyons. In the small world of nationally televised movie reviewers, I ran into Roger repeatedly and we even “slugged it out” (according to a newspaper account) in a heated debate in 1993. An eager crowd of nearly a thousand jammed a ballroom in Palm Beach, Florida to hear us argue over my assertion that Hollywood had broken faith with more traditional, conservative segments of the public. The Florida Sun-Sentinel reported: “Ebert, performing before a genteel but hostile crowd, kept his composure and argued his case well. Medved, with the audience on his side, showed restraint, affection and respect for his opponent.” Of course, the people who participated in this high profile event bought their tickets to see a pair of contemporary TV stars, not just a couple of bookish movie geeks. At that time, the television industry sustained three different paired-critic shows broadcast across the country (including the Rex Reed/Bill Harris franchise At the Movies) while the big networks featured colorful critics of their own, including Gene Shalit on NBC and the late Joel Siegel on ABC.
Roger’s sad departure from the national scene dramatizes the fact that no reviewer today enjoys that sort of influence or prominence. Networks, along with most local stations, no longer employ regular film critics and efforts to revive the old Sneak Previews format of film clips mixed with bickering commentators have all faded or failed.
The problem has nothing to do with an absence of informed opinion or entertaining observation but stems rather from the surplus of such opinion and observation, and its unlimited availability on the internet. Instead of waiting to catch a weekly broadcast of Siskel & Ebert & the Movies, potential moviegoers simply log on to Rotten Tomatoes for a quick summary of reviews and a consensus opinion that may be the only critical verdict that actually influences box office results. Twenty years ago, film fans watched critics on TV for our unique ability to give a brief taste of the releases under discussion by showing clips as part of our reviews. Today, they can access a far more extensive selection of scenes at the click of a mouse. The lavish press-kits that used to arm reviewers with extensive information on production history and background bios of all principals in a project now also get posted on the internet, made available to mere "civilians" and no longer the exclusive advantage of credentialed members of the entertainment press.
One more factor undermines the importance of leading critics: the declining significance of the audience that treks to the multiplex to see a film in the first few weeks after its debut. In the late '70s, when Roger and Gene first emerged as celebrated media figures, movies earned the great majority of their revenue in their theatrical North American release. Today, films earn far more through the combination digital distribution and “physical media” like DVD than they do from traditional moviegoers. What’s more, most American movies draw bigger grosses from overseas audiences than they do at home, also contributing to the greatly diminished importance of opening day reviews, regardless of the critic who writes them.
Some eulogies for Roger expressed nostalgia for a better, richer era of movie-making in which he wielded his greatest influence, but that's unfair: 2012 was a strong year for Hollywood and the nine Oscar nominees for Best Picture at the Oscars could hold their own with top selections from any "golden age" that experts and aesthetes might cite. But if Ebert's passing hardly marks the end of some glorious epoch for motion pictures, it does demonstrate the definitive conclusion to a golden age of movie talk on TV. Even with Jurassic Park once again stalking screens in its fresh 3D version, it’s unlikely that anyone could bring back the roaring dinosaurs of broadcast film reviewers who once shook the earth with their footsteps.
Editor’s note: A version of this column appeared first in USA TODAY.
Photo courtesy Flickr/Todd Sternisha