Moviefone remakes its Web site into more than simply online movie listings.
It's 1995 and the information superhighway is opening its lanes for e-commerce and e-content. Early interactive innovator Moviefone--the seven-year-old, telephone-based movie ticketing and information line based in New York that services about 1 million callers a week--is suddenly a consumer brand saddled with an ancient delivery platform.
The company responds to the brave new world of the Web by launching MovieLink.com to coincide with Los Angeles-based Columbia Pictures' summer debut of The Net, Sandra Bullock's follow-up to Speed, which features the Internet as a key element in a major Hollywood studio film for the first time.
Fast-forward five years and MovieLink.com has transformed into Moviefone.com. In addition, America Online, the Dulles, Va.-based mega-ISP with 22 million registered users, has added its initials as a prefix following a $388 million stock purchase of Moviefone in 1999. Suddenly, the online market for movie tickets has become a coveted space.
Despite some analysts' predictions that an oversupply of movie tickets on the Web could inhibit growth in the market, companies such as Pasadena, Calif.-based Ticketmaster Online, New York-based MovieTickets.com, Dallas-based eNowShowing.com and a yet-to-be-named online ticketing venture spearheaded by Columbus, Ga.-based Carmike Cinemas and six other national theater chains, are positioning themselves to compete against AOL Moviefone for a share of a market that is expected to reach $54 million in revenue by 2003, according to New York-based Jupiter Communications. This amount, per Jupiter, represents a mere 2 percent of the total projected $2.7 billion event-ticket market.
In an attempt to distinguish itself from the competition, Moviefone.com, which together with the offline Moviefone employs more than 250 people, is spending millions to redesign its site with an entertainment component, according to Andrew Jarecki, co-founder and CEO at Moviefone.
To aid its efforts, Jarecki recently hired Mark Golin (see sidebar), formerly the editor of Maxim and Details magazines, to help develop editorial content and reinforce the brand identity on- and offline. In addition, Jarecki hired Alex Weil, president of Charlex, a 20-year-old New York-based digital production and design company, to enliven the site.
Jarecki says he'd been particularly impressed by Golin's ability to boost Maxim's circulation from 175,000 to 1.3 million during his one-year tenure. "He did it through humor," says Jarecki, "and figuring out how to do very simple, quick-read features that give readers an instant fix and quick chuckle."
Jarecki cites the recent release of Jim Carrey's new film, Me, Myself & Irene, in which there was some controversy regarding the treatment of mental disease, as an example of Golin's comedic approach.
"Mark saw that and thought we should have a list on the homepage with upcoming films and who's going to protest each one," says Jarecki. "There's a movie coming out called Numbers, well, that will be protested by the alphabet. Golin knows that on the Internet you only have people's attention for a second. His goal is to get them to smile and realize that this is a site with some attitude."
Cognizant of the fact that numerous entertainment dot-coms touting original content and alternative delivery channels have failed, Jarecki claims Moviefone.com knows its limitations.
"I think we're realists about what you can expect people to do on the Web," says Jarecki, who together with Adam Slutsky, CFO/COO, Moviefone, Russ Leatherman (the voice of Mr. Moviefone, and also its president) and Rob Gukeisen, vp, new technology, Moviefone, brainstormed the concept for the national ad-supported movie info line more than 12 years ago. "We don't have a fantasy that people are coming to Moviefone with a large series of unfulfilled entertainment needs. We know that it's a crowded market and that people get most of what they need from magazines and TV everyday. As a result, we want [the site] to do a little very well," Jarecki adds.
Offline, Moviefone condenses local newspapers' entertainment sections, extracting pertinent information, including new movie releases, cast of actors, nearest locations, play times, cost, running times and trailers. Online, additional services include customized e-mails, frequent-buyer programs, voice-recognition commands and print-at-home ticketing--the latter to include "quick facts" printed on the back for the upcoming Pokƒmon 2000 feature.
Mindful that a slew of entertainment sites feature such things as fashion shows, Jarecki says Moviefone.com isn't going to show Gwyneth Paltrow in the latest Vera Wang dress. Instead, it will be what she wore when she went to the movies last weekend. "We're always going to focus everything on the process of going to the movies," he says. "That's where our brand lives."
For instance, according to Jarecki research indicates that in addition to buying tickets in advance, moviegoers are interested in hearing what others are saying about current releases. As a result, Moviefone.com sends videographers to film premieres in key markets who poll viewers as they leave the theater. "Now you can go to Moviefone.com and find out if a particular movie is any good before committing to see it," says Jarecki. "[Which means] we have another piece of content that enhances the utility experience."
Jarecki admits that there's always the risk the site could pan a film that turns into a blockbuster.
"In our case, it's a little difficult to shoot the messenger," he says. "You could argue that maybe [former New York Times film critic] Janet Maslin has a very specific, singular opinion that's not representative of the entire population or that a certain newspaper is trying to bury a movie. In our case, we use a statistically significant sample of moviegoers and expedite the same word-of-mouth they may have had to wait a week to get. By making that process electronic, we're making that decision process that much better."
Although AOL's purchase of Moviefone last year surprised some industry experts, others felt it was strategically wise for an entertainment company to align itself with an Internet juggernaut due to the enhanced communication opportunities.
"We at the studios are still in the Dark Ages about how we do ads and collect data [online]," Marc Shmuger, head of marketing at Los Angeles-based Universal Pictures, told The Los Angeles Times on June 25. "We only talk in one direction to the consumer. But on the Internet you have an interactive conversation with your customer, which is how you find out what a customer values and engage in a sustained relationship with your fan base. That's why the AOL/Time Warner merger is so incredibly significant, because AOL is so much more sophisticated than movie studios in how they communicate with their customers."
From Cars to Tickets
In 1983, pop music group The Cars hired Weil to create a music video for "You Might Think." The result was a mix of multiple elements shot separately and then layered into a single scene that helped change the visual vocabulary for film and TV directors. The video won the first MTV Music Video Award.
Nearly 20 years later, Weil finds himself immersed in a technological medium searching for clarity and simplicity.
"The Cars video was all about using technology to create visuals and have fun," says Weil. "I think the breakthrough with Moviefone was almost in the opposite direction. This site is about not letting technology get in the way of having fun and communicating with people."
To accomplish this, Weil stood back and realized that Moviefone and its signature voice (the subject of a Seinfeld episode and a Motorola pager TV commercial) had become a cross between a normal product and an entertainment entity.
"Some brands rely on their advertising to create humor and its place in the culture," says Weil. "But this brand already has that."
To reinforce the site's interactivity, Weil came up with "Ask Mr. Moviefone," which displays prominently across the homepage and attempts to reflect the same persona as the phone service. In addition, the site uses actual quotes from the phone menu to drive the Web site. For example, when you open the site, it says, "Hello, and welcome to Mr. Moviefone." Prompts on the homepage are based on things heard on the phone, such as: "If you see the name of the movie you'd like to watch, click here."
"In some ways we were inspired by Ask Jeeves, [the San Francisco-based interactive resource]," says Weil. "We also hired Modern Humorist [a New York-based online media company] to come up with funny ideas."
Could Moviefone.com get too creative for its own good? Weil doesn't think so.
"I don't think that the entertainment sites we've heard about [failing] were all that creative," he says. "If they had been, I would have watched [them] longer, I would have told my friends, and other people would have watched them. And you know what? They wouldn't be bankrupt." n
Two cigarettes with Mark Golin
By Jennifer Owens
Dressed in black from his cap to his shoes, Mark Golin strides purposefully through Moviefone's reception area and announces, "C'mon, we're going downstairs."
"I need a cigarette," he says with a raspy laugh before launching into his plans for world domination. It seems that his new job as AOL Moviefone's senior vp and creative director is only the first step. But one suspects that to tell any more would only play into his plans somehow. In the time it takes to reveal his plans, Golin has already smoked his cigarette down to the butt, so it's time to go back upstairs to his new Internet office.
"This is my Internet desk," he says. "See? It has no drawers. And this computer? I hear it can connect to the Internet."
When Mark Golin was shown the door at Details last March, few figured that he'd end up at Moviefone.com, the movie ticket seller now owned by America Online. In only three years in New York, Golin had made a name for himself editing the wildly successful British import Maxim before jumping to Condƒ Nast Publications to save the now-on-hiatus Details. Few remember, however, that Golin's first year in New York--after 10 years at Emmaus, Pa.-based Rodale--was spent as editor of Cosmopolitan's Web site.
Besides, his new job is less of tech and more of quirk. Golin has been hired to translate the infamous, officious voice of Mr. Moviefone to not only the Web, but possibly radio and television as well.
"Could we do a Mr. Moviefone radio show? Could we have Mr. Moviefone TV specials?" he asks rhetorically. "We're looking into all of those things and what their tone would be. It's an interesting challenge because with a magazine--Maxim when I left was at 1.3 million, which is pretty good for a magazine, and Details was around 550,000--well, Moviefone gets between 150 and 300 million visitors a year. It makes the magazines seem like you were talking to a classroom."
Yeah, but people will sit down and commit to a magazine in ways that they probably won't with a Web site.
"Well, that's true, but can we get them to commit for a little while longer? Mind you, I look at lots of sites that have tons and tons of content, and I look at their stats and their page views are going down.
"Nobody seems to be putting a price on appropriate content, [as in] is this what you want right now? Now I know that the people who are coming to Moviefone.com are coming to buy tickets. Do I expect them to start going to the site when they don't need tickets just to see what we're doing? I would love that, but I'm not expecting it. What I'm more concerned with is that when they come for tickets, if I can get that 150 to 300 million people to click another three or four times while they're on the site, then that's 4.2 billion additional clicks."
So you're not out to be everything entertainment?
"You see sites that have, like, 15 different reviewers doing a movie," he says with an air of annoyance. "If you want information about the stars, you can get that in the Post, on CNN, on every Web site. We'll have a little bit of that so if you want it, it's there. We've also got the synopsis of the film. And if you want to see every film with the key grip from Gladiator, we've got that on a database, too. But my whole thing is that you come to the site and it feels lively. We don't have a million things; we have a couple of great things that you have a look at while you're getting your tickets.
"Take Gone in Sixty Seconds. Angelina Jolie is in it. 'In the time, it takes you to ' " he says in a mock movie voice. "Rrrr!" Golin explains Moviefone.com's approach to the movie: "Someone's like, hey Angelina's got a new tattoo, so we've got this little line on the home page that changes. They were going to put, 'What is Angelina Jolie's new tattoo?' I said, no, no, no the question is, 'Where is Angelina Jolie's new tattoo?' Now, if you see that on the homepage and you know it's only going to take you a few seconds, you're going to click on it."
OK, I'll click. Where is it?
"You find out it's on her shoulder. So we've yanked you. But we also talk about how she's vying with the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 'Most Images Displayed.' We've always got some fun little thing there. But you get a general feel that we like movies."
Golin signals that it's time to go downstairs again since he's not allowed to smoke in his office.
"The whole thing is yes, [Moviefone] started the online ticketing early and they have the best and most extensive service by far," he says, walking to the elevator. "But I think one has to assume that others will try to do the same thing.
"I think if you have services of equal quality and everything is equidistant on the Web, then the advantage goes to the one where people say, 'You know what? I like Moviefone. I go to the site and they have a clever take on something. They did something real funny.' That's where I come in."
So you're funny?
"Maybe," he grins. "Or at least I know funny people."