By Arlene Weintraub In Los Angeles, planning a trip to see the latest hit movie can make you feel an awful lot like Indiana Jones stuck in the Temple of Doom. After scouring the local paper -- which is likely to list movie times and theaters in a confusing jumble of ads -- you arrive at the theater only to be greeted by an endless line at the ticket booth. Reserving your ticket via America Online's Moviefone hotline is an option, but only a limited one since it doesn't cover all U.S. theaters -- and you have to put up with that annoying voice ("Hello! And welcome to AOL Moviefone!").
So, while planning a recent Sunday afternoon outing to see the Julia Roberts flick America's Sweethearts, I tossed the newspaper and logged on to the Web. I checked out two leading sites: Moviefone.com and its newer rival, Fandango, which is backed by a consortium of seven theater chains, including Loews Cineplex Entertainment, General Cinema, and Century Theaters. Both promise to provide listings, reviews, previews, and -- depending on the theater -- the ability to reserve tickets and pick them up at either the ticket window or a kiosk.
I started at Fandango, which greeted me with a home page that was simple, clean, and to the point. I could have entered my ZIP code and chosen a movie right off the bat, but it was even easier to click on the America's Sweethearts link in Fandango's list of top box-office draws. Next, I was taken to a page where I entered the date I wanted to see the movie and my ZIP. This pulled up a list of theaters in my neighborhood.
There are six movie theaters so close to my home (one of the advantages to living a stone's throw from Hollywood) that just about every new release is playing somewhere within walking distance. So, on the list of 15 theaters Fandango provided, the nearby General Cinemas Avco Center was first. I could link to a map to the theater and a review from Hollywood Reporter, all the while watching a streaming preview on an adjacent frame. Fandango has better coverage than Moviefone: 45% of the nation's theater tickets are sold at Fandango-linked movie houses.
THE COMPETITION. Then I clicked over to Moviefone to see what it had to say about my chosen romantic comedy. I was immediately assaulted by a very cluttered home page with pictures of Madonna, links to sweepstakes, and a whole bunch of headlines with numbers in them ("11 Surefire Ways to Silence a Movie Theater Loudmouth," "Six Reasons Why Estella Warren is Smarter Than You Think").
Even after I typed in my ZIP and movie title, Moviefone seemed determined to distract me. Every time I linked to a new page, a Planet of the Apes preview popped up. This happened about a half-dozen times in 15 minutes. The way I see it, if they're going to force me to watch previews, the least they could do is throw in a Jurassic Park dinosaur for a little variety.
After several clicks, I finally stumbled upon the option of viewing the movie schedules of the theaters closest to me. But when I clicked on the General Cinemas Avco Center, I got a message saying, "We're sorry, at this time we do not have showtime information for this theater. Please try again later." Therein lies a basic problem for both Fandango and Moviefone: Not every movie-theater chain participates in both sites. So, even though both will allow you to search for the showing that's closest to you, they may not be able to provide movie times or tickets for the theater you ultimately choose.
DRAMATIC CONCLUSION. Overall, I found Fandango to be the more comprehensive and customer-friendly of the two sites. And it's competitively priced. Service fees range from $0.75 to $1.50, depending on the theater. Moviefone usually charges $1.
Fandango's only drawback is that it's a bit light on movie news and reviews. If you need help deciding what to see, a trip to Moviefone -- which is loaded with reviews from the New York Times, E! Online, and Entertainment Weekly -- isn't a bad idea. There is some content on Fandango, but by the company's own admission, Fandango isn't meant for flicks fanatics who want the latest dish on Mel Gibson. "The basic mission for us is getting you that ticket in the most convenient way possible," says Fandango CEO Arthur Levitt. (If his name sounds familiar, it's because he's the son of former SEC Chairman Arthur Levitt.)
When it comes to service, Fandango beats Moviefone -- and does so hands down. After placing my order on the former site, an error message popped up saying my credit-card information didn't go through. So I clicked on "live help" at the bottom of the Fandango home page and was taken directly to a chat session with a very nice customer-service agent named Marvin. With just my e-mail address, Marvin was able to tell me in less than a minute that my order did go through, and that the ticket was waiting for me at the theater. Moviefone allows customer-service questions by e-mail and phone, but that's not much help if you need an answer in a hurry and don't want to log off the Internet in order to use your phone.
PRINTS OF THE CITY. Fandango is rolling out another advantage: print-at-home tickets. At 25 theaters in 11 cities so far, including New York and San Jose, moviegoers can type in their credit-card numbers, print their tickets straight off the Web, and walk right into the theater. The ticket-taker scans a bar code on the printout, then prints out your ticket stubs with a handheld gadget similar to the sort that Hertz rental-car agents use to provide a receipt when you return your car.
This is a major step up from reserving your ticket in advance and picking it up at the theater. As my friend Rachel Pine, a native New Yorker, reports, "It seems that in every theater the ticket-retrieval machines are broken, and then you have to wait on the same line you were trying to avoid." MovieFone doesn't have this development yet -- and published reports say it has backed off plans to roll out print-at-home tickets after a limited test run.
Fandango hopes to someday pack even more value into that $0.75-$1.50 service charge. In San Jose, the company is testing Fandango Express, which allows moviegoers to print their tickets at home, walk straight into the theater, buy their Goobers and popcorn via a special express line at the concession stand. Then they get first pick of seats in the theater. Now, that's what I call entertainment. Weintraub covers technology for BusinessWeek in Los Angeles