The Bootleg Files: Sneak Previews

BOOTLEG FILES 731: “Sneak Previews” (PBS series starring Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No perceived reissue value.


In 1975, the Chicago public television station WTTW debuted a monthly show with the somewhat awkward title “Opening Soon at a Theater Near You.” The show featured two of Chicago’s most prominent film critics, Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times, in a half-hour discussion regarding the merits and flaws of films in release. Clips from the films in question gave audiences a sampling of what they could expect on the big screen.

At first, the show had very limited appeal. While Roger Ebert became the first film reviewer to win the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 1975, he didn’t have the national cult following afforded to provocative critics including Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris or John Simon. Siskel was an unknown quantity outside of his newspaper’s readership. Paired together, the thin Siskel and the rotund Ebert gave the impression of a modern-day Laurel and Hardy – although Siskel originally sported a Chester Conklin-worthy mustache. They were also placed in a cheap-looking set designed to resemble a cinema balcony, with a much-too-close screen right in front of them. Needless to say, at first it looked quite odd.

It also didn’t help that the two men came to this endeavor with intense dislike for each other. Ebert would recall the difficulties between them created long and uncomfortable tapings – a half-hour episode would take eight hours to complete. Eventually, they began to put aside their animosity while keeping a manageable layer of tension that allowed for the impression of frenemy critics in an observational duel.

“Opening Soon at a Theater Near You” wasn’t an instant hit, but it eventually found an audience and WTTW switched it to a bi-weekly format in 1977 with the more user-friendly title “Sneak Previews.” At this point, “Sneak Previews” was syndicated over PBS, where it scored an immediate hit. The show went to a weekly format in 1979 and was playing on 180 PBS stations around the country.

“Sneak Previews” was a lot of fun to watch for several reasons. First and foremost, the program spanned the full range of the cinematic output of the day – it didn’t dumb down to a tribute of Hollywood blockbusters, but cast its net wide to include independent productions, foreign-language films and grindhouse nuttiness. The latter genre was particularly well-represented by the 1980 non-budget “I Spit on Your Grave,” which probably would have sunk into obscurity had Siskel and Ebert not been so adamant in their denunciations – rather than convince audiences to avoid it, they wound up piquing curiosity of viewers who turned “I Spit on Your Grave” into a surprise box office hit.

It also helped that Siskel and Ebert were also very passionate about their opinions. When they disagreed, they were no shy about defending their thoughts vigorously – and without needlessly denigrating the other’s intelligence. A particularly vibrant exchange involved their review of David Lynch’s “The Elephant Man,” with Ebert expressing a myriad of disappointments and confusions about the presentation while Siskel kept focusing on the overall production. On the flip side, Siskel failed to react with admiration to Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” dismissing it as “the same old standard Vietnam stuff” while Ebert felt the film offered “some of the most beautiful, heartbreaking, tragic, memorable footage of war that I’ve ever seen.”

Siskel and Ebert often reviewed films they disliked with more gusto than the films they enjoyed. Their consideration of the edited-down version of Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate” was especially brutal, with Siskel dismissing it as a “screwball film” and Ebert insisting the cinematography captured so much dust and fog that it was impossible to determine what was happening on screen. The duo occasionally offered special episodes devoted to themes, most notably a 1980 offering titled “Women in Danger” that claimed films such as “When a Stranger Calls” and “Friday the 13th” were miserably misogynistic.

Siskel and Ebert never had any guests on “Sneak Previews,” although they shared the balcony with Spot the Wonder Dog, a telegenic pup who appeared at the tail end of each show when attention was given to the “dog of the week” – usually a cheapo horror film playing the fleapit theaters and low-rent drive-ins.

WTTW believed it could tap into a commercial bonanza with “Sneak Previews” by taking it off PBS and syndicating it commercially. But Siskel and Ebert were unhappy with the contract presented by the station and they left to create a carbon copy of their program called “At the Movies,” which was syndicated by Tribune Entertainment. (That was when they started the thumbs up-thumbs down shtick.) “At the Movies” ran from 1982 to 1990, at which time the duo moved their act to the Disney-produced “Siskel & Ebert & the Movies,” which ran until Siskel’s death in 1999.

WTTW opted to keep “Sneak Previews” on the air with New York-based critics Jeffrey Lyons and Neal Gabler, with Michael Medved later replacing Gabler. These men were conspicuously lacking in charisma, but somehow the show miraculously stayed on PBS until 1996.

I personally preferred Siskel and Ebert in their PBS series rather than in the later syndicated series, where they gave the impression of playing for the camera rather than being engrossed in a cinematic conversation. Many clips of “Sneak Previews” can be found on YouTube, all uploaded from VHS home video sources. Viewed today, it is fun to see how these critics initially reacted to films that would become considered all-time classics – and, damn, did they really think “Cannonball Run” was one of the worst films of 1981?

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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