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Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert vs. the ’80s Blockbuster

In this excerpt from The Ringer’s narrative podcast series ‘Gene and Roger,’ Brian Raftery explores how Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert reviewed one of the best (and worst) decades for movies

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In 1984, a Paul McCartney fantasy-musical—that was supposed to be his big Hollywood breakthrough—titled Give My Regards to Broad Street was released. Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert both disliked the movie, and were quite vocal about their opinion. Give My Regards to Broad Street proceeded to flop at the box office, and while it wasn’t necessarily Gene and Roger’s fault, their negative reviews certainly didn’t help.

But when Gene and Roger liked a movie, it could give the film new life. Take their review of My Dinner With Andre that aired in late 1981. It was less a review and more a rave. It was like someone grabbing you by the shoulders, pointing you in the direction of the nearest theater, and saying, “You’ve gotta see this!”

Thanks to Gene and Roger’s endorsement, one theater in New York City decided to keep My Dinner With Andre around for a few more weeks. Then a few more months. It wound up playing there for an entire year. Even in the ’80s, that was rare. Later, the filmmakers would give Siskel and Ebert credit for helping to keep the movie alive. It was one of the many low-budget films Gene and Roger would champion in the years ahead. Movies like Tampopo. El Norte. The Brother From Another Planet.

But the ’80s weren’t necessarily renowned for their indie films; it was the era of the blockbuster. And while Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were still trusted tastemakers, they were covering an industry that was hooked on box office receipts. In the next several years, the film business would get bigger, louder, and more aggressive—and so would the films themselves.

Hollywood was changing in the ’80s: big sequels, big salaries, big spectacles. And America was changing, too. It was the era of deal making and unchecked money lust—a time when the rich got even richer, thanks in part to a telegenic ex-movie star.

In the Reagan years, greed—for lack of a better word—was good. And the movies released that decade reflected that. Studio executives had to make a lot of money, so they spent a lot of money, pouring it into ambitious action films and splashy franchise movies. Some of them flopped, like David Lynch’s Dune. Or Staying Alive, the disastrous sequel to Gene’s beloved Saturday Night Fever. But when a film like Top Gun could make nearly $200 million in theaters—plus millions more on home video—the rewards seemed to justify the risks.

As a result, films like My Dinner with Andre became all the more rare. And from the moment the decade began, Siskel and Ebert often found themselves frustrated by the new New Hollywood.

Gene and Roger had been spoiled in the early days of their careers. When they started their movie-review jobs in the late ’60s, the two critics could walk into a theater, or a screening room, and rightfully expect to see something amazing: Mean Streets. Nashville. Scenes From a Marriage.

That’s why the ’80s took Siskel and Ebert by surprise.

Even though Siskel and Ebert loved the Star Wars movies—not to mention ’70s hits like Jaws and Superman—those mega-smashes did a lot of damage to the Hollywood they’d once known. The fact that movies could now make nine figures at the box office convinced executives to chase as many blockbusters as possible. At the same time, throughout the ’80s, some of Hollywood’s biggest studios were gobbled up by massive corporations: Rupert Murdoch bought 20th Century Fox. Coca-Cola bought Columbia Pictures, then sold it to Sony.

The new overlords didn’t want to take too many chances. They wanted huge opening weekends, and massive profits. And in the ’80s, they went after younger moviegoers with a vengeance. Before the decade was over, the movies would become corporatized. And so would Siskel and Ebert.

Brian Raftery is the author of Best. Movie. Year. Ever.: How 1999 Blew Up the Big Screen. His work has appeared in Wired, New York, and GQ.