Are the thumbs gone forever?
In an announcement posted early Monday morning on his website, film critic Roger Ebert said he is taking his thumbs and walking away from the TV show he helped build into an international brand. "After 33 years on the air, 23 of them with Disney, the studio has decided to take the program in a new direction," he wrote. "I will no longer be associated with it." Ebert's announcement arrived only hours after co-host Richard Roeper, of the Chicago Sun-Times his on-air companion since 1999 announced that he too would be leaving At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper; his last weekend on the show will reportedly be Aug. 16.
Ebert has been battling serious medical problems for the past two years and has been off the air since the summer of 2006. But his departure now stems from a dispute with Disney, the distributor for At the Movies, over the show's famous trademark thumbs-up/thumbs-down verdict on films. The rights to that trademark belong to Ebert and the widow of Gene Siskel, Ebert's original co-host. Ebert's departure from the show apparently comes after he and Disney could not come to an agreement on compensation related to the trademark.
Ebert, who began his career as a film critic for the Sun-Times in 1967, started the nationwide show (originally called Sneak Previews) with Siskel on PBS in 1978. The show changed its name to At the Movies and moved to syndication in 1982, and soon became the most popular movie-review show on television. Despite Siskel's death in 1999, from complications related to a brain tumor, the show continued to flourish, first with a series of fill-in critics and finally with Roeper as Ebert's sparring partner in 2000.
Ebert's own health problems began in 2002, when he underwent surgery to remove a cancerous growth on his salivary gland. He was able to continue doing the show afterward but was forced to take another hiatus in June 2006, when the cancer resurfaced and part of his jawbone had to be removed. While he was still in the hospital, his reconstructed jaw collapsed and a blood vessel ruptured. Emergency surgery saved his life, but because of a breakdown of tissue surrounding the artery, he has been in a constant state of treatment and recovery ever since, which has affected his ability to speak. When he appeared at New York City's Gotham Awards last November, his wife Chaz spoke for him as he took the stage to accept an award for his enduring support of independent film.
With Ebert absent for the past two years, Roeper and an array of guest critics from the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips to the New York Times' A.O. Scott have kept the weekly show going. But last summer Ebert and Disney found themselves embroiled in a very public fight in negotiations over Ebert's contract. Disney issued a press release in August 2007 saying it would no longer use the "thumbs-up/thumbs-down" trademark in the show because Ebert told the company he wouldn't allow it during a contract renegotiation.
Ebert disputed that on his website shortly afterward: "Contrary to Disney's press release, I did not demand the removal of the Thumb [trademark]. They made a first offer on Friday which I considered offensively low. I responded with a counter-offer. They did not reply to this, and on Monday ordered the Thumbs [trademark] removed from the show." Ebert went on to say that he would allow the thumbs to be used on the show during negotiations.
But on Monday, Ebert appeared to make the breakup between the show and its thumbs final. "The trademark still belongs to me and Marlene Iglitzen, Gene's widow, and the thumbs will return," Ebert wrote on his website. "We are discussing possibilities, and plan to continue the show's tradition." For his part, Roeper also announced his intention to return to the airwaves in some form. But for now, long-time Ebert fans will have to be content with following his movie criticism in print or on the Web. In addition to his syndicated weekly reviews and columns, Ebert has also recently launched a blog, titled "Roger Ebert's Journal," which is updated regularly.