POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Feb 24, 2014
LAST UPDATED: 5:40 p.m. HST, Feb 24, 2014
LOS ANGELES » Mr. Moviefone's lines are going dead.
For 25 years, residents of America's biggest cities have been able to call 777-FILM to receive movie listing information and buy tickets. The service's goofily booming greeting became a cultural catchphrase: "Hello, and welcome to Moviefone!"
Over the weekend, callers were told that the automated service would soon go silent, overtaken by new technology and shifting consumer habits.
"The 777-FILM numbers will no longer be in service in the near future," intones a man with a voice decidedly scrawnier in timbre than Mr. Moviefone's. "To buy tickets and for all of your showtime information please download the free Moviefone app on your smartphone or iPad."
Russ Leatherman, a founder of Moviefone who provided the famous greeting, left the company in November.
The automated telephone service - once so popular that it was lampooned on "Seinfeld" - will be disconnected in about a month, before a planned reintroduction of the Moviefone brand by AOL and BermanBraun, a Web and television company.
"The call-in service has been in pretty steady decline," Jeff Berman, president of BermanBraun, said in a telephone interview. "Our customers are much more interested in our award-winning app, and we need to invest our resources in the future, part of which involves a major reimagining of Moviefone."
He declined to provide details.
At its peak in the mid-1990s, Moviefone received more than 3 million calls a week. Berman declined to say what that weekly figure is now. An AOL executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid a conflict with Berman, said "thousands" of people continue to call.
Informed by a reporter of the decision to end 777-FILM, Andrew Jarecki, a Moviefone founder, said he was sad but not surprised.
"It's a missed opportunity and unfortunately characterizes the way AOL has mismanaged the Moviefone business for quite a while," Jarecki said. "The fact that a lot of people still call - hundreds of thousands a month, from what I have been told - shows that it isn't some ancient idea." AOL responded in an emailed statement, "Moviefone is one of the best-known brands in entertainment, and we believe it can mesh seamlessly with AOL's strategic focus on premium content and video."
Calls to the 777-FILM lines were already dwindling in 1999, when AOL paid an eye-popping $388 million for the company. But Moviefone was still the leading online ticket seller and by far the dominant movie information brand.
Then theater owners jumped into the fray, creating MovieTickets.com and Fandango.com. Consumers never embraced an AOL effort to recast Moviefone as less of a ticket seller and more of a movie news and information hub. AOL outsourced upkeep of the telephone part of the service, and quality suffered.
Jarecki said he and some partners tried to buy the telephone service back in recent years.
It may be a technological dinosaur now, but 777-FILM was cutting edge for its time. Jarecki and his associates changed the way many Americans learned about showtimes by creating a reliable automated directory, initially amassing information from 13,000 screens in 31 cities.
"There are very few things that really come to the surface in pop culture and manage to occupy a quirky, special place," said Jarecki, who went on to direct the Oscar-nominated documentary "Capturing the Friedmans."
With his deep ringmaster's voice, Leatherman's Mr. Moviefone greeting in particular became part of the cultural firmament. In the 1995 "Seinfeld" episode, Kramer's new number is similar to 777-FILM, and, when callers start ringing him by mistake, he rises to the challenge and mimics the voice.
Asked what it was like to be famous as Mr. Moviefone, Leatherman said:
"It's been a total blast, but if I've heard my last 'Do the voice,' that's OK too. I'm ready to work on new projects and get back to being an entrepreneur."
Moviefone became such an institution in New York that Leatherman was among celebrities who were asked to record safety messages for taxi riders. "Life isn't a movie," Mr. Moviefone would intone, "so buckle your seatbelt."
The same could be said of the end of the line for 777-FILM.
Brooks Barnes, New York Times