Plus, they came with good references: My boyfriend and his two enterprising teen-agers scored big online when they went surfing for tickets for Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones soon after it opened. They printed out a bar code that recorded their purchase, had it initialed at the theater's customer-service desk when they arrived, and had their pick of seats at Showcase Cinemas in Randolph, Mass. They paid an extra $1 per ticket, but knew they would at least get into the show they wanted.
Millions of other movie fans are catching on, too: Movie-ticket sites were the fastest growing destinations on the Net in May, with traffic up 81%, to 12.8 million unique visitors to the three majors combined.
I soon found out these sites are hardly the promised land. After sitting down the keyboard, it didn't take long before I felt as if I was lost in a twisted David Lynch plot. First stop: MovieTickets.com, where I wanted to get tickets for The Bourne Identity at the Loews multiplex across from the Boston Common. If Matt Damon was too hot, I could always try to sneak into one of the other 18 theaters.
EXCLUSIVE ENGAGEMENTS. No such luck. MovieTickets.com offers tickets for more than 6,000 screens nationwide, but Loews theaters are not among them. The site doesn't tell you this up front, though. After all, why would it want to drive away traffic? Instead, after I typed in my Zip Code to find nearby venues, it confusingly listed all the theaters -- including Loews's -- and their show times.
The barely visible distinction is that those listed at the top in purple are partners, those in gray are not. But it takes a few minutes to find this in the site's small print to the right. You have to go to the "About Us" section to find MovieTickets' partners, who are also its parents: AMD Entertainment, Famous Players, Hollywood Media Corp., Hoyts Cinemas, Marchus Theatres, National Amusements, and Viacom.
AOL MovieFone wasn't much better. In fact, it was downright misleading. MovieFone says it works with Loews, but I ran into the same dead-end when I clicked my way through to the Loews near my home. An e-mail question about the snafu prompted a reply a day later. A customer-service agent named Bill explained that the site no longer offers advance ticket sales for Loews at the request of the theatre chain.
WASTED EFFORT. I wish I'd known this before starting out: Movie chains have forged exclusive alliances with online sites, so no single site offers one-stop shopping. And even if the site has made a deal with the chain's HQ, some of its theaters still may not be available. That leaves these sites a good bit short of the one-stop shops I expected.
The plot thickens. Fandango has sued Onex Corporation, Loews's parent, charging it with violating an exclusive deal by negotiating with rival MovieFone. A Loews spokesperson declined to comment on the matter.
Knowing what service your theatre belongs to doesn't guarantee a ticket, though. Over the weekend, I went online with my boyfriend's teenagers, who I figured might have a better knack for these things. We started at movietickets.com. We typed in the Zip Code, clicked on the movie we wanted to see, and found all the theatres within a 20-mile radius. We chose the show time, specified the number of tickets, agreed to the $1 service charge, chose to pick up rather than print tickets, provided an e-mail confirmation address, and typed in a Visa number (the site doesn't take American Express).
NO EXPLANATION. After all that, we received a red warning message and a frowning face that said "Sorry, your order did not go through. The theatre is temporarily unavailable for online ticket sales." That was it. There was no further explanation, leaving us with no one to complain to. Later, the customer-service rep at the theatre told us the site stops selling after a theatre is half-full. So much for conveniently reserving a seat ahead of time.
Still, this story has a happy ending. I did manage to get a ticket on fandango for a Wednesday night showing of The Bourne Identity at my local Loews. But until the sites work out their legal issues, standardize their offerings, and do a better job of spelling out when and where tickets are and aren't available, I'll keep showing up early at the box office to buy mine. In this case, the Web doesn't seem to reward spontaneity. Faith Keenan is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Boston bureau.