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Harry Potter bewitches Web sales

Web box offices hope Harry Potter spells success as thousands of fans log on to the Net to buy movie tickets. But some analysts warn sellers not to get their hopes up yet.

Harry Potter is sprinkling some magic on Net sales of movie tickets.

Thousands of bewitched fans of the film "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," which opened in the U.S. Friday, are logging on to the Net to buy movie tickets to avoid frittering away hours standing in box-office lines.

AOL's Moviefone.com, Movieticket.com and Fandango.com predict their combined ticket sales could top 1 million this weekend. Mitch Rubenstein, co-chief executive of privately held Movieticket.com, said his company has sold 300,000 tickets for "Harry Potter," eclipsing the company's previous best seller, "Pearl Harbor."

"Potter will be our biggest single film opening ever," Rubenstein said.

While the Web's movie-ticket sellers hope the film will introduce their services to millions of new customers who will continue buying online, some analysts warn that they shouldn't get their hopes up. The nascent industry has lagged behind music and sports as the hottest tickets on the Web.

Online sales of movie tickets account for 2 percent of total sales, says Stacey Herron, a media and entertainment analyst for Jupiter Research. Online sales of concerts make up 20 percent of total sales, and sporting events make up 10 percent.

Herron said this is due to several factors, but mostly because most people are too disorganized to plan ahead.

"People don't need to plan ahead to buy tickets for most movies," Herron said. "In New York, where there are fewer theaters, moviegoers will use these services more often. But in my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, where there's a multiplex on every corner, there are plenty of seats to go around."

For blockbuster films, however, Herron says buying online could become the preferred way to go among many film fans.

Herron added that "Harry Potter" will draw more first-time online ticket buyers, and that should help them feel more comfortable buying over the Net again.

The system usually works one of two ways:

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 Fans whiz to Harry Potter Web site
Melissa Francis, correspondent, CNET, and Jarvis Mak, senior analyst, Nielsen/NetRatings
Moviegoers go to one of the movie-ticket sites and buy tickets. Then they print out bar-coded tickets on their home PCs and take them to the theater, where they can be scanned--just like groceries are scanned in a supermarket--for authentication. The other way is to punch in identifying information into a kiosk that issues tickets, which many theaters have in their lobbies.

Online buyers pay between 50 cents and $1.50 more per ticket, but the benefits are no lines and a guaranteed seat

"It has to offer a better service, offer more convenience for people to continue to adopt," said AOL Moviefone General Manager Tommy McGloin, who predicted Moviefone will sell 1 million "Harry Potter" tickets before the film has finished its run.

"I have young children, and I can't afford to wait in line or go to a theater and find it's sold out," he said.

Of the 35,000 screens in North America, about 10,000 are in theaters that are technologically advanced enough to accept electronic tickets, and the number is growing every day, Movieticket.com's Rubenstein said.

And don't look now, but moviegoers will soon be able to order popcorn, Milk Duds, Ju Ju B's and other concessions online as well, Rubenstein added.