With ticket in hand, Craig Rankin thought he was going to see the new "Star Wars" movie early Wednesday morning. Instead, the showing was just a phantom menace.
Rankin's ticket for "Attack of the Clones," which he purchased online through Moviefone, was for a show time of 12:01 a.m. on May 15. But when the Berkeley, Calif., resident showed up at the theater late Tuesday night to take his place in line, the theater was shutting down and workers there told him he'd have to wait until Thursday to see the show.
"I knew it would be too good to be true. I knew the movie was supposed to come out on the 16th," Rankin said. "But it wasn't out of the realm of possibility that the tickets were correct."
Anticipation is running high among "Star Wars" fans and theater operators as the fifth movie in the series closes in on its general release Thursday and Friday in some 5,800 theaters worldwide. The fever pitch stands out even in the world of Hollywood marketing, where $100 million-plus openings now set the benchmark for success.
While "Attack of the Clones" will be hard-pressed to exceed "Spider-Man's" record-breaking $114 million opening earlier this month, die-hard fans have been preparing to storm the theaters for weeks.
Queues began forming in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles last month, where the faithful have created a minor tent city. Meanwhile, growing numbers of fans such as Rankin have been ditching lines and buying advance tickets on the Internet. For some theaters, the majority of advance tickets are now sold online.
While such Web sites are billed as a convenience, they suffer from glitches that can leave customers fuming. As Obi-Wan Kenobi might say, when it comes to movie dates, "your eyes can deceive you; don't trust them."
The problem that Rankin ran into has to do with the way the ticketing systems at many theaters work, said Russ Leatherman, founder of Moviefone, now owned by AOL Time Warner. The system considers tickets sold for midnight or early-morning shows to be on the same business day as those sold on the previous evening and carry the same date, he said. Moviefone and some other online ticketing sites that hook up to the box office systems then carry that same date for the movie.
"That's simply how they book it. It's simply out of our control," he said. "It's kind of a small bug. We're hoping that not too many people are inconvenienced by it."
A search on both Moviefone and MovieTickets.com for tickets to "Attack of the Clones" on Wednesday turns up seats for several midnight or 12:01 show times. In contrast, rival site Fandango didn't show any screenings for Wednesday. Instead, it listed the midnight show times on Thursday.
After being notified of the problem Wednesday, MovieTickets plans to add a notice to its Web site, alerting customers that tickets bought for a midnight showing are actually for the date after the day shown, according to Stuart Halperin, a MovieTickets spokesman. A ticket bought for Wednesday at midnight would actually be for a show starting early Thursday morning.
"We're adding some clarifying language to our site to make sure people know when the movie is playing," Halperin said.
Leatherman didn't know if Moviefone had a similar alert on its site.
Although "Attack of the Clones" isn't scheduled to open nationwide until Thursday, the movie is already a big hit at the ticketing Web sites. The movie is the fourth-highest-ranked movie ever on MovieTickets in terms of tickets sold and could reach the No. 2 spot after this weekend, Halperin said.
Moviefone has already sold "hundreds of thousands" of tickets to "Clones," comprising some 70 percent to 80 percent of all tickets now sold through the site, Leatherman said.
Fandango said Thursday that it sold more than $2.35 million in advance tickets to "Clones," representing 85 percent of its sales for the week. "Clones" also eclipsed Fandango's advance sales for "Spider-Man," the company said.
Keynote Systems, which monitors Web site performance, said online ticketing sites Moviefone and Fandango have had few technical problems as people log on in droves to purchase tickets. MovieTickets' home page has slowed considerably in the past few days, according to Keynote, leaving many people waiting to purchase tickets. Overall, however, the slowdowns pale in comparison to the delays and even lockouts experienced at some ticketing sites days before the previous "Star Wars" film, "Phantom Menace."
"With the 'Star Wars' saga, you're probably talking about the most fanatical fan base when it comes to films," said Stacey Herron, entertainment and media analyst at Jupiter Research. "So online is just another outlet for them...If you're talking about online hype, I think 'Star Wars' is at the pinnacle of hype."
Herron said the official "Star Wars" site is the only online movie site that continuously gets traffic month to month. The site had 1.4 million unique visitors in April, 1.5 million in March and 798,000 last October, according to Jupiter Media Metrix. Herron said that the Web site for a blockbuster picture typically jumps up into top traffic for about one month around the film's launch.
The "Clones" trailer page at the official "Star Wars" site also lagged Monday, but Keynote said performance since then has improved somewhat.
For some people, watching trailers has not been enough. Pirated copies of "Clones" began circulating online more than a week before its release.
Other people chose to wait for what they thought would be the first screening of the film in theaters. Rankin said he wasn't the only one fooled by dates on the tickets and online.
"Lord knows how many people showed up. I personally saw seven people," he said. "Anybody who bought a ticket and believed what the ticket said probably went to the theater last night."
News.com's Gwendolyn Mariano contributed to this report.