An obituary for Moviefone, 1989-2014


A screenshot of the Moviefone iPad app, which survives.

There are precious few constants in life. But for more than two decades, Americans could feel secure knowing that, if they dialed 777-FILM, Mr. Moviefone would greet them on the other end.

“Hello, and welcome to Moviefone!” The booming voice always said.

But the popular film-listing and ticket-buying service, known to many by that greeting, lost a long battle against irrelevance on Feb. 24. It was 25 years old and, according to its founders, suffered from years of mismanagement and increasingly stiff competition, particularly from online upstarts unburdened by expensive, ’90s-era gimmickry.

“There are very few things that really come to the surface in pop culture and manage to occupy a quirky, special place,” said Andrew Jarecki, one of the service’s founders. Moviefone, clearly, was one such thing.

Born in January 1989, the child of two New York investment bankers and two L.A.-based partners, the service proved precocious in its early years — allowing anyone who dialed 777-FILM to check his local movie listings when a morning paper wasn’t at hand. By 1991, Moviefone had 105,000 weekly callers in New York, alone, enough to add phone ticket sales in 1992 and a dollar service charge shortly thereafter.

Its convenience was legendary; in a world before Internet, Moviefone was the one option that allowed fans to skip the lines. Celeste Busk, then a journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times, remembered one incident in 1992 when Moviefone saved her from waiting in the Midwestern cold on a February night.

“My companion and I bypassed the long line and went to MovieFone’s ‘will call’ computer in the lobby,” she wrote, fondly. “I inserted my credit card. The tickets popped out. I took them to the ticket-taker. And as I walked to my seat, I could still see shivering people outside waiting hopefully for tickets.”

Those were happy days for Moviefone. By January 1994, one-fifth of the nation’s screens were linked to the service, which proudly reported revenues of $10 million over its first five years. By May, it had filed for an IPO.

Moviefone counted Movielink, “the first online movie information service,” among its proudest accomplishments from that period. On July 25, 1995, Movielink even sold the first online movie ticket in history. That triumph was only surpassed four years later in 1999, when AOL acquired MovieFone for $388 million in stock. The service, at that point, boasted 3 million weekly users in 42 U.S. cities, and AOL would augment the brand with “high-tech features” like the ability to print tickets at home and reserve seats in participating theaters.

But even at this early date, Moviefone was beginning to suffer the maladies that would later ruin it. Helen Forster, a sales executive in New York, tried to dial 777-FILM for tickets to “Far From Heaven” in 2003, and remembers a mess of automated options so tangled, she couldn’t close the deal.

And Moviefone wasn’t only fighting internal demons — Fandango and Movietickets.com, as well as other chain-specific competitors, were already forcing Moviefone to the cultural fringe. By 2008, Moviefone had slipped to third-place in a ranking of the most popular movie sites. And by 2010, Fandango’s traffic had long eclipsed that of its older, more retro sibling. Yet its spirits remained high until the end, said Russ Leatherman, one of the service’s founders.

“It doesn’t bother me at all [that Fandango has more online traffic than Moviefone],” he said, bravely, in 2010. “That’s the nature of competition. I would argue Moviefone is the most popular movie guide in America. When I’m on the streets in Los Angeles or somewhere else, and I say what I do, people say: You are that Moviefone guy! Nobody has really been able to capture the imagination like Moviefone has.”

But despite a last volley — a press, in 2010, “to put the fone back in Moviefone” through mobile web and texting — Moviefone was ultimately unable to stave off irrelevance.

Survivors include Moviefone’s original founders, the last of whom left the company in November 2013; a mobile app, available for iPad and iPhone; and the “thousands” of people who, per an anonymous AOL executive, continue to call the line.

In lieu of flowers, please download the Moviefone app and buy lots of tickets through the (Fandango-powered) theater tool.

Caitlin Dewey runs The Intersect blog, writing about digital and Internet culture. Before joining the Post, she was an associate online editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
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