Last week, ABC Media Productions announced it was firing the hosts of the long-running cinema review series “At the Movies.” It wasn’t a particularly shocking announcement. Since the departure of original hosts Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, a string of co-hosts have worked their way through the show’s balcony seats. Ben Lyons and Ben Mankiewicz—collectively known as “The Bens”—were only the latest, added to the show last season. Ratings took a drop, and the duo will now be replaced by A.O. Scott, co-chief film critic of the New York Times, and Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips. No big deal. Happens all the time. So what’s with all the celebratory cheering?
Well, after Roger Ebert dropped out of the picture due to health reasons, there was some speculation that, in this age of the Internet, traditional film criticism was dead. Why bother with thoughtful, informed film opinion when you can simply appeal to the lowest common denominator with lightweight, fast-paced “Entertainment Tonight”-style journalism? Why have the 40 years’ worth of film watching experience of a Roger Ebert when you can have—as one detractor dubbed it—“the pretty-boy douche-melon version.”
And so, the age of The Bens began. The backlash was swift and severe—most of it aimed directly at Mr. Lyons, a Hollywood reporter and film critic for the prestigious E! Network (home of “Sunset Tan” and “Kourtney & Khloe Take Miami”). First came the blogs. StopBenLyons.com (“a blog on mediocrity and American culture”) chronicled Lyons’ lack of intelligence on the job. The eFilmCritic.com website hosted a damning “Ben Lyons Quote of the Week” page. Last fall, Roger Ebert wrote a lengthy (and very wise) list of “rules” film critics should follow (not reviewing movies they appear in being one). It was viewed by most as a point-by-point criticism of Lyons’ performance on “At the Movies.” By December, the Los Angeles Times dubbed Lyons “the most hated critic in America.”
It didn’t help that Lyons was a certified moron who spent far more time sucking up to celebrities than actually watching movies. (Last summer, he dubbed Will Smith’s I Am Legend “one of the greatest movies ever made” and famously named the trailer for Twilight one of his “must-sees of the week.”)
Brian Frons, who heads up the Disney unit that oversees ABC Media Productions, said last week that The Bens were “complete professionals,” however, he added, “we’ve decided to return the show to its original essence—two traditional film critics discussing current motion picture and DVD releases.” Translation: “Whatever the hell The Bens were, they weren’t film critics and they weren’t discussing motion pictures.”
Being a film and television critic myself, and fancying myself something of a serious one at that, I’ve spent a while building up my loathing for Mr. Lyons. I’ve kept my prejudices in check, however, for fear of sounding like I’m spitting sour grapes at the lucky guy who landed a sweet TV gig. I’ve always had a great deal of respect for Mr. Ebert based on what he’s done for my profession and the art and appreciation of film in general. Lyons, however, is just a twit. Now he’s a fired twit. As the poet once said, “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass.”
“At The Movies” with new hosts A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips will make its debut on Sept. 7.