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Net box office looks for hit with Hobbit film

MovieTickets.com is selling advance tickets for the upcoming "Lord of the Rings" film, giving Hobbit lovers a shortcut that bypasses long lines at movie theaters.

MovieTickets.com said Wednesday that it is selling advance tickets for the upcoming "Lord of the Rings" film, giving Hobbit lovers a shortcut that bypasses long lines at movie theaters.

The online box office said people can now purchase tickets for the much-hyped film, which opens Dec. 19, through its Web site. Buyers can print out their advance tickets or pick them up at the theater's box office or automated ticketing station. A service charge may be applied.

MovieTickets is aiming to sell tickets to a large portion of the huge audience expected for the film, which is based on J.R.R. Tolkien's legend of a Hobbit who battles an evil lord to save his world. But MovieTickets faces stiff competition from other virtual box offices, particularly AOL Time Warner's Moviefone and Fandango.com, which are also selling advance tickets for "Lord of the Rings."

MovieTickets in June signed a deal that brings Moviefone customers to its service if the AOL Time Warner site doesn't offer tickets for a particular theater. But that deal has yet to push MovieTickets to a leading position in the market.

According to Nielsen/NetRatings, Moviefone received 3.5 million unique visitors for the month of October, followed by Fandango with 541,000 visitors and MovieTickets with 324,000.

Still, Kim Pillon, an Internet analyst at Nielsen/NetRatings, said most people visit these sites for show times, reviews and other information.

Online ticket sites "are taking off as far as looking at content," Pillon said. "As far as selling online, it's not a huge portion of their business. It's one that could have potential, but only for these highly anticipated shows that really could sell out and people want to get in the hype right at the first day it comes out so they get in there as soon as possible."

That drive to be the first in line was highlighted with the recently released Harry Potter film. MovieTickets said it has sold about $4.5 million in tickets for "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" since the film opened three weeks ago. But that's small change compared with overall box office sales for the film, which totaled $219.7 million as of Sunday, according to ACNielsen EDI.

"It's all about convenience," said Stuart Halperin, executive vice president of marketing at MovieTickets. People "don't have to wait in line and...they can reserve their seats for a hot sale in advance so they don't get sold out."

MovieTickets is run by a consortium of theater chains owned by companies including AMC Entertainment and Viacom. In addition to ticket sales, it offers movie reviews, trailers and weekly e-mail newsletters.