According to Russ Leatherman, his two-decade-long tenure as movie showtime guru "Mr. Moviefone" was attributable to one thing: People wanted to punch him.
"I’m not a voiceover guy, it wasn’t something I did for a living," Leatherman told Parade in 2010. "So I figured I’m going to make it weird enough that when people call, they’re going to have an experience. They’re either going to love it and say ‘That’s the happiest guy I’ve ever heard,’ or they’re going to hate it and want to punch me right in the eye. But, either way, they’re going to remember it."
"Hello and welcome to Moviefone!"
When Leatherman and his friends/business partners—Andrew Jarecki, Adam Slutsky, Douglas Hoitenga, and Robert Gukeisen—started Moviefone in 1989, it wasn’t exactly easy to find out what was playing at your local theater. Newspapers had showtimes, of course, but not everyone had that day’s edition handy; calling a multiplex was usually a futile exercise. Popcorn, not a ringing telephone, was the employee’s biggest priority.
The group sensed a business opportunity: A service that allowed movie buffs to get the showtimes for their local theaters simply by dialing 777-FILM and punching in their ZIP code. The experience itself would be punctuated by the braying delivery of "Mr. Moviefone," the character voiced by Leatherman who had a catchphrase ("Hellloooo and welcome to Moviefone!") that would be later be parodied on shows like Seinfeld.
The partners all originally went into a recording booth to see who might best embody the telephone operator, and while none of them were voiceover professionals, Leatherman had spent time as a college disc jockey, making him the most viable candidate. "In the recording booth, one of my partners could barely speak, and the other sounded like Donald Duck," Leatherman said in 2010. "So I went in and tried to make Moviefone an experience—like [moviegoing] itself. I wanted it to be more than a utility and a service. So, I threw on that kind of Dick-Clark-on-crack, goofy voice in, and it stuck."
The service was originally named Filmfone during the testing phase, but the alliteration didn’t roll off the tongue very well, so it was then changed to Moviefone. When the number launched in markets like New York and Los Angeles in the fall of 1990, times for movies like Home Alone, Rocky V, Dances With Wolves, and Kindergarten Cop were just a few button presses away and free to the consumer.
To derive income from the calls, Moviefone sold demographic information to studios and also ran recorded ads that would play before the listings. If, for example, someone was thinking of what movie to go see, Columbia Pictures could run a spot for Flatliners before the rest of the movies were named directly to a captive and targeted audience: Anyone bothering to dial Moviefone was obviously looking to go to the movies.
Moviefone used the utility of the service to reshape the film business. According to Leatherman, it was the first time audiences could purchase advance tickets either over the phone or, later, online; the service also eventually offered reserved seating. For 1993’s Jurassic Park, Moviefone offered tickets a month in advance, a practice that was virtually unheard of at the time. (Securing a seat incurred a $1 surcharge.)
Seinfeld Steps In
Moviefone’s transition from a service to a cultural touchstone was partially the result of a Seinfeld episode. In "The Pool Guy," which aired in November 1995, Kramer (Michael Richards) switches to a new telephone number (which happens to be one digit off from Moviefone) and finds himself fielding calls from people trying to reach the service. In an effort to help them, he begins reading off showtimes from the newspaper. Ultimately, Kramer is confronted by the real Mr. Moviefone, voiced by Leatherman.
With Seinfeld drawing up to 30 million viewers a week, it was invaluable advertising for the service. "It was just a bizarre experience. And I sort of knew at that point that, wow, this is a thing that’s catching on and that people are starting to pay attention to," Leatherman said. "And in fact, before the Seinfeld episode, Moviefone was getting a couple hundred thousand calls a week, and after the Seinfeld episode it was getting well over a million calls a week."
Leatherman got mileage out of the Mr. Moviefone persona. In addition to Seinfeld, he appeared on The Late Show With David Letterman and as a guest voice on shows like Family Guy and Futurama.
In the ultimate dot-com move, America Online bought Moviefone for an estimated $388 million in stock in 1999. Leatherman remained on board, while partners Jarecki and Slutsky departed. By 2004, the service was fielding about 5 million calls a week.
Your Call Has Been Disconnected
But as Moviefone entered the 21st century, it was no longer a must-have number. The increasing prevalence of the internet made listings easily available. Although it maintained a web presence, AOL shut down the 777-FILM number in 2014 and swapped Leatherman for actor Kevin Thompson, who was the voice of Moviefone for online digital content.
Andrew Jarecki, one of Moviefone’s co-founders, remained in the movie business, though in a different capacity. He directed the 2003 documentary Capturing the Friedmans and HBO’s The Jinx docuseries about now-convicted murderer and real estate heir Robert Durst. Adam Slutsky became CEO of online printing company Mimeo.
In 2018, Moviefone was sold to Helios and Matheson Analytics, the company behind the controversial MoviePass subscription service. In 2020, it was sold for a third time to Born in Cleveland LLC, which continues to operate it as a website. The booming refrain of "Helloooo and welcome to Moviefone!" is now a relic of an earlier time—much like the landlines people used in order to dial in and hear it.