A Brief History of Moviefone, From Mr. Moviefone Himself

Before smartphones and Fandango, one friendly, booming voice was shouting movie times into ears across America. Now, after 25 years, that voice and the cultural catchphrase it wrought—Hello, and welcome to Moviefone—are about to enter an eternity of radio silence. But as it turns out, the man behind the voice still has plenty left to say.

Russ Leatherman—Mr. Moviefone himself—may have just been one of several Mr. Moviefone cofounders back in 1989, but it was his voice that recited every title, showtime, theater, and street direction to each and every one of 777-FILM's callers over the years. And for someone with such famous vocal chords, other than some top 40 radio DJ-ing back in college, he barely had any voice experience at all. Speaking to Gizmodo, Leatherman noted, "I just happened to be the guy at the time who could sit in front of a mic and do the recordings."

Setting the Tone

Before Moviefone entered the world, there were exactly two ways to hunt down movie times. You could either scrounge through newspapers, or go straight to the box office and hopef or the best. Both were a pain in the ass. Inspired by this universal frustration, Leatherman and co. decided to do something that had never been done before; they were going to spoon-feed movie times to anyone with a phone line—entirely for free.

As we all know, it was a hit, and it wasn't long before Moviefone expanded from its initial locations in New York and LA to nearly every major city in the country. Creating what was the first of its kind, Leatherman takes particular pride in the milestones they hit along the way:

After the first year or so, we were already in the top 10 cities in the country. Of course, we eventually sold the company to AOL in 1999, but we had a lot of firsts along the way. We introduced credit cards to movies. We were the first online movie guide. We introduced reserve seating to the movies. Truthfully, much of how you get to the movies today is because Moviefone laid that out for you.

As with any innovation, theaters were slow to embrace the brand new ticketing system, but all it took was one to fall before the rest came tumbling after—"tumbling" being a pretty accurate description here. Moviefone certainly didn't take off without its hiccups.

A Brief History of Moviefone, From Mr. Moviefone Himself

Just the Fax

Back in the late 80s/early 90s when Moviefone first started, sending ticket orders over the internet was nearly unfathomable. So what'd they use instead? Good, ol' fashioned fax machines. As Leatherman told Gizmodo, "When new tech became available, we'd jump on it pretty quickly. But if it didn't exist yet, we just had to try to make it ourselves."

Essentially, Moviefone's first system was based entirely around manpower and some killer organizational skills. Making it up mostly as they went along, the team would have to print out a customer's order themselves and fax it to the appropriate theater. The theaters had been instructed to maintain an alphabetically organized folder, so as ticket orders came pouring in as fast as the fax machines could spit 'em out, the box office attendant would need to physically file each individual order. Occasionally, though, the faxes spat orders out a little too fast. Leatherman recalled one instance in particular in 1991 when Moviefone only had a couple theaters under its belt, one of which was the El Capitan in Hollywood:

When Beauty and the Beast first came out, we'd put a fax machine in the box office that just spit out these cards, but the system had broken—meaning we oversold the theater by about three or four times. This was a totally new technology, so the studios were mentioning it in their newspaper ads. And since it was a family movie, people were ecstatic about being able to reserve in advance.

We got a call from the theater manager that morning, and their little box office was about half-way full—just about waist deep—in reservation cards. We had to personally go down to that theater and explain to the families in minivans driving up with their kids that they weren't going to get to see Beauty and the Beast that day. It was a technology glitch; anytime you try anything new its almost inevitable.

Moviefone, ruiner of childrens' afternoons.

The fax system was tedious, sure, but at the time, it seemed like the only way. As better credit card processing technology became available, though, Moviefone could start sending the transactions themselves to the theaters—as soon as the theaters agreed to install the necessary equipment, that is. So in this way, Moviefone really did pave the way for the many ticketing services that would come after it.

Dialing In

As Moviefone perfected its process and dug its way into the country's cultural consciousness, the hotline started popping up in more and more cities. And at least for Leatherman, that meant a whole lot more work than you've probably ever realized. Each new city meant new theaters, new addresses, and a whole new system of roads and cross streets. For Mr. Moviefone, that means putting in some hard studio time:

In the beginning, I spent days and weeks and months in a small recording booth. I'd just be recording every theater in the country and every possible telephone scenario. Then as cities started getting recorded, within a few years, I was spending just two or three hours a week in a recording booth, but no more than that. Eventually it was mostly just movie titles and things like that. It became manageable.

Nothing was more of a testament to how widespread Moviefone had become than its brief stint on Seinfeld in 1995. The episode's sub-plot revolved around the fact that Kramer's new phone line closely resembled the number for Moviefone, so rather than continuing to inform people they had the wrong number, he just decides to go with the flow.

As popular as Moviefone had already been, after the Seinfeld episode, a couple hundred thousand calls a week quickly turned into about a million a week. It's the kind of advertising money can't buy.

Hanging Up

But a few years later, the internet happened. Sure, it had always been there, looming in the background, but as that grating dial-up tone started sounding off in more and more homes across the country, the Moviefone calls started to decline. Adapting, again, Leatherman and his coworkers set up shop at Moviefone.com and its subsequent smartphone app. So it was no surprise when AOL came a-knockin' in 1999.

While Moviefone.com provided schedules, synopses, reviews, etc., it still relied on outside partners to power the site's ticketing function. And under the (former) internet giant's reign, Moviefone's online arm cross-linked with MovieTickets.com before being outright acquired by the ticketing site. Just a few years ago in 2012, though, Moviefone teamed up with Fandango, its current ticketing partner. While all these changes were going on in Moviefone's virtual realm, Leatherman remained the heart and soul of the phone line—until just last year, that is.

After Leatherman left the company in November of last year to pursue other projects (like his heavily syndicated Six Second Reviews), the fate of the telephone line became more or less sealed. With the founder, face, and voice of the company gone, hiring a replacement wouldn't only not seem right—it really wouldn't have made much sense. Some may still hold onto the old methods, but the telephone line had been falling steadily out of favor. And it's for this reason that Leatherman believes AOL, unfortunately, really didn't have much of a choice in shuttering the service, telling Gizmodo, "When was the last time you saw a 16-year-old talking to—well, anybody? Literally just having a conversation with anyone. It doesn't happen like it used to."

Twenty-five years is a long time for anything. Nearly a Bieber and a half. And much like dog years, tech ages at an exponentially faster rate than everything else surrounding it. So it's with understanding-yet-heavy hearts that we hang up on Leatherman's iconic, informative tones for the final time.

Goodbye, and so long to Moviefone.

Image: Getty Images/Evan Agostini