'Mr. Moviefone': 'Dismal summer for movies'

Russ Leatherman also weighs in on 3D, Tom Cruise

Russ Leatherman, left, and Andrew Jarecki in an undated photo
Moviefone relaunches website, adds texting

Twenty years ago, Russ Leatherman, now 48, and a few friends launched an interactive telephone service called Moviefone. As "Mr. Moviefone," he became its voice, loved by many, hated by others, and AOL bought the service in 1999 for about $400 million. Leatherman spoke to THR business editor Georg Szalai about Moviefone's history and his take on Hollywood trends -- from 3D to franchise pictures.

The Hollywood Reporter: How does Mr. Moviefone feel about the current movie output in Hollywood?

Russ Leatherman: It's been an interesting year for movies. This summer, one of my favorites was "Winter's Bone," an awesome little independent movie. And it's a shame really. It ends up on 12 screens across the country for two weeks, and "Resident Evil: 3D" is on 4,000 screens, and everybody has access to it. We will figure out how to do this at Moviefone, too -- give people access to movies that they would like to see versus just being force-fed a lot of the stuff that comes out of Hollywood, which this summer and even this year hasn't been particularly good. Although I also liked "Inception," it's been a little dismal for movies this summer.

THR: Is this a crisis of creativity or what?

Leatherman: It's primarily economics that the studios are trying to figure out, and that get more complicated all the time. I think we are learning that you can't necessarily put a big star in a movie and get the box-office returns you would like.

THR: How do you feel about 3D?

Leatherman: I was one of he huge proponents of 3D when I saw movies like "Up" that were just spectacular. And then come along movies like "Clash of the Titans" and others that are simply trying to reach into your wallet and try to steal your $15-$20. And the 3D is terrible! Going to the movies is not cheap, especially when you take a couple of kids and maybe buy popcorn and soda, you are talking maybe $100. And there is nothing worse than going to a movie theater and being disappointed.

THR: How can Hollywood make 3D sustainable?

Leatherman: They are about to kill the golden goose. Guess what!? A bad 3D movie is just as bad as the 2D movie. 3D doesn't make a bad movie better. And if you are paying more for it, I know a lot of people who are saying: I'm not getting suckered by the 3D. But I think it will wash out. The studios will be more selective about the movies they put in 3D, because there is a bit of a 3D backlash going on.

THR: You mentioned the declining luster of Hollywood stars. Can you explain that phenomenon?

Leatherman: I think it's a new generation of moviegoers. Today, the prime demographic is not swayed by Tom Cruise and doesn't really care about Tom Cruise. The stars have become less relevant, and the stories and the fun elements of a movie have become more important. The (Hollywood) system has to change along with these changes.

THR: The industry has lost a lot of movie critics, and with Facebook and Twitter, digital word of mouth has often replaced them. How do you try to stay relevant in this environment?

Leatherman: The beauty and the curse is that these days everybody is a movie critic. Who do you listen to? What I have tried to do is find my way to the top of that movie criticism pyramid. Because I have a relationship with moviegoers already on the phone and on the Web. In my reviews on radio and TV stations (and now also the six second reviews online) is really try to figure out whether you are going to like a movie. I consider myself more as your movie friend than a critic. The same person who wants to see the last Miley Cyrus movie is not the person who wants to see "Machete." Will the demo that the movie targets enjoy the movie and will the $10 ticket be worth it? That's the question.

THR: How did you come up with the idea for Moviefone?

Leatherman: The idea was born out of mine and a few friends' frustration with going to the movies. Back then, it was frankly a pain in the butt. You would call a theater and get an answering machine. Or run to 7-Eleven and get a newspaper, but by the time you got back, you missed that critical moviegoing period. We tried to figure out a movie guide that would allow people to press a few buttons on a phone, put in a ZIP code and really make it easier. Moviefone -- back then as now -- has always been about making your moviegoing experience better.

THR: How did you come up with the signature Mr. Moviefone voice?

Leatherman: I studied radio and television broadcasting and had done some radio disc jockeying. ... In the recording booth, one of my partners could barely speak, and the other sounded like Donald Duck, so I went in and tried to make Moviefone an experience -- like movie going 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.

THR: How did you create a demo and make your first sale?

Leatherman: We got some computers from people I knew in the interactive telephone business, and I think we racked up $32,000 worth of credit card bills. Then we marched around to the motion picture studios. Getting a meeting as a guy who just created a wacky movie guide was not easy. But we finally got a meeting with John Butkovich (then vp media) at Columbia Pictures. He was known as the renegade media buyer. He was the guy who would buy posters on the back of bathroom stalls. I said if I get a half million people ready to go to the movies and I can play your movie ad right before their decision, he said yes. He bought an ad for "Flatliners" in 1990.

THR: Fandango and a few other sites get more Web traffic than you nowadays. Does that bother you? Will the redesign help you reclaim the top?

It doesn't bother me at all. 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 saw what I do, people say: You are that Moviefone guy! Nobody has really been able to capture the imagination like Moviefone has. A little competition is healthy.

THR: What are the other Moviefone founders doing these days?

Leatherman: Andrew Jarecki has gone on to make movies. He made the documentary "Capturing the Friedmans" (2003), which was his very first movie and he got an Oscar nomination. He has a feature that will be released soon that is called "All Good Things." He produced a documentary called "Catfish" that is in theaters (these days). My other partner Adam Slutsky is the CEO of (an online, on-demand document printing and distribution) company called Mimeo. We all stay in very close touch. If they call Moviefone and get a bad showtime, I hear about it.

THR: Mr. Moviefone was featured on "Seinfeld" and other TV shows over the years. Did you ever pitch a movie or TV show?

Leatherman: I like the sound of "Mr. Moviefone: The Movie." That's a great idea. But yes, you will see more of me and Moviefone. Movie review shows have not done particularly well and sadly gone away. So, we plan on filling a need in that marketplace and syndicate such content in the near future [likely early next year]. We plan on continuing to provide content to TV and radio stations. I also co-hosted the pre-Oscar show on KABC again this year, which is syndicated across the counrty and in 150 countries, and we will do it again next year.
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