EXCLUSIVE: I’ve just been told that Penske Media Corp has terminated Elvis Mitchell after more than 3 months as Movieline.com’s chief film critic. The early end to his contract follows a company investigation into the circumstances surrounding Mitchell’s recent review of Summit Entertainment’s Source Code for the site. The company is making no formal announcement. But here is what I’ve been able to find out. [Full Disclosure: PMC also owns Deadline.com, but all its media properties are managed separately.)

A Summit rep tells me that Mitchell was shown a final cut of the film Source Code on February 24th in NYC. His review of the movie appeared on Movieline.com on March 31st. That same day, the pic’s director Duncan Jones tweeted, “Find it odd Movieline choose to complain about Jeffrey Wright smoking a pipe, something in an old draft of the script thats not in the film.” The reference was to what Mitchell had written in his review: ”It’s up to Jeffrey Wright, as the administrator supervising the Source Code — the machine that keeps firing Colter back, back, back to the recent past — and his eccentric brio to keep the silliness from piling up like ash from his pipe. That’s how you know this film is science fiction — someone is smoking indoors in the United States — and that Wright is a martinet whose malevolence must be checked.” 

After the director’s tweet was brought to Movieline’s attention, I questioned an editor there who emailed, “We’ve indeed been working hard for a week to ascertain exactly what happened…” When Movieline asked for a formal explanation, Mitchell told editors that he was at the screening and that it was all a misunderstanding and that he would provide a written explanation. Now Mitchell’s contract has been terminated early.

A former New York Times movie reviewer hired in late 1999 until he departed in April 2004, Mitchell was announced as Movieline’s Chief Film Critic on January 12th of this year joining the site’s Chief Critic Stephanie Zacharek and staff critic Michelle Orange. At the time, Mitchell was described by Movieline as ”a leading voice not only in film criticism and popular culture but in the business of film, all of the things that Movieline is about”. 

I’ve known Mitchell personally since 1996 and believe him to be a  brilliant writer and reviewer. But controversy also has caught up with him again and again over the years. Some of it was captured in this New York Magazine article published right after he left the NY Times. Most recently Mitchell was announced as co-host on Roger Ebert’s new review show Ebert Presents At the Movies only to have his departure announced shortly after the premiere date was announced. Before that, Sony’s Columbia Pictures announced it was hiring Mitchell to start a New York office with producer Deborah Schindler in March of 2005. The studio hoped Mitchell would scout new minority talent and make movies for minority audiences. But he never showed up for work, insiders told me at the time, so Schindler headed the office solo. To this day, no one at Sony knows why Mitchell went AWOL, and he refuses to talk about it. Before that, Mitchell also had a stint as director of development at Paramount under his pal Brandon Tartikoff but departed after six months also under controversial circumstances.

Editor-in-Chief Nikki Finke - tip her here.