NEW YORK – Film fans who go online or use the phone to obtain movie information can no longer buy tickets for all the flicks they might want to see, thanks to deals between large theater chains and the industry's biggest listing services.
Fandango.com and its competitors, AOL's Moviefone.com and the AOL partner Movietickets.com, still offer all available movie times but restrict actual ticket sales to those theaters covered by exclusive arrangements they have with certain chains.
The most recent partnership was announced last month between two-year-old Fandango and Loews Cineplex Entertainment — which has a heavy presence in New York City and San Francisco. Under terms of the agreement, online ticket sales to any movies showing on Loews screens can only be done on www.fandango.com.
AOL, which owns Moviefone and has a stake in Movietickets.com, already has similar agreements with cinema giants like AMC.
The deals have left many filmgoers less than thrilled.
"That annoys me enormously," said Long Island, N.Y., resident Cristina Barden, who works in retail in Manhattan. "If the convenience aspect is taken out of it, it’s more of a hindrance than a help."
Barden and others say they understand the business strategy, but think such partnerships make movie Web sites less consumer-friendly.
"From all the MBA angles it makes sense, but from a user’s standpoint it’s a pain in the butt," said Steve Buxbaum, 33, a small-business consultant in Los Angeles.
Representatives for the online ticket sellers don't necessarily see it that way.
"They might be used to getting tickets one way and the next day, they aren't able to order them that way," admitted Sallie Green, vice president of marketing for Fandango. "But we've really never gotten any significant customer complaints. We've talked to theaters, and the response hasn't been negative at all."
Moviefone spokesman Jim Whitney said he hadn't heard any criticism from consumers, either.
"There are a lot of theaters out there, and Moviefone offers ticketing to many of those," he said. "If you want to see a movie, you're going to be able to find a theater where you can purchase tickets (on Moviefone) if you want. People pick movies; they don't pick theater chains."
AOL Moviefone has been the dominant film information company for years, with millions flocking to www.moviefone.com or calling 777-FILM to get listings and buy tickets. Such services are especially popular in busy urban areas, where they are often the most convenient way of reserving a spot in a crowded theater.
Then came the June 2000 launch of Fandango, the Santa Monica-based competitor that offered its own Web site and voice-activated phone service at 1-800-555-TELL. The new deal between Fandango and Loews was announced on Feb. 14.
AOL Moviefone and the smaller AOL-allied Movietickets have agreements with Crown Cinemas, Hoyt, Classic Cinemas and several others, according to Whitney. Fandango has deals with seven chains, including General Cinema Theatres and Regal Cinemas, as well as Loews.
Whitney said Moviefone research has shown online ticket buying is still secondary to the information function the sites serve, with only about a third of the nation’s movie screens offering online purchasing.
"Movie ticket purchase is a small but growing business," he said. "Most people use our site to read reviews and get listings. Being able to purchase the ticket is an added benefit, but they go first and foremost for the information."
Fandango, however, wants to change that, and bills itself as the largest online movie ticketing company in the country. Green said the service was created in part by theater chains, with nearly all its deals exclusive.
But Moviefone still claims the title of lead online movie service, citing continued growth in visitors to its site. In the month of November, 5.7 million people logged onto moviefone.com — "the most ever for any movie site," according to Whitney. He said the company aims to expand its ticket-purchasing options.
It remains to be seen if exclusivity deals with cinemas will make or break the film Web sites. Green and Whitney predicted consumers would accept the changes with little frustration, and some agreed.
"It’s easier than driving over to the theater early and picking up the tickets," Buxbaum conceded.
Others were not sold. "I would probably end up chucking the whole thing and going to the box office to get the tickets that way," Barden said.