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Phantom Menace orders swamp MovieFone

Star Wars fans trying to buy tickets to Phantom Menace online needed Jedi-like patience and probably a little bit of help from the force.

Star Wars fans trying to buy tickets to Phantom Menace online today needed Jedi-like patience and probably a little bit of help from the force.

As tickets for the new movie went on sale at noon PT nationwide, many fans turned to the Net. But instead of finding tickets, some seemed to find slow servers and confusing pages.

MovieFone, which conducts sales for several major theaters, was hit by slowdowns and even periods when users couldn't get through. The company, which has been selling tickets online since July 1995 and is slated to be acquired by America Online, has agreements to sell tickets for Century Theaters, AMC Theaters and General Cinema, among others.

Anticipating today's Star Wars crush, MovieFone recently added servers to increase capacity "almost ten-fold," according to Christine Fakundiny, the company's marketing director.

MovieFone now can handle "thousands of transactions per minute," Fakundiny said. But the site was slow for some users and others were not getting through.

"The demand far exceeded our expectations," Fakundiny said.

Among those who had difficulty using the MovieFone site was Marc Arendt, a 28-year-old senior at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Arendt said he planned to be in Chicago next week when Phantom Menace opens and wanted to see the movie there, which is why he was trying to buy tickets online.

Arendt said he previewed the MovieFone site a couple of weeks ago to get a feel for where the tickets would be sold. But he said when he returned today, the site had been redesigned and he couldn't find the theater he was looking for.

As of 4 p.m. PT, after trying for about an hour and a half, he said he still had not been able to buy a ticket.

"I gave up," Arendt said, adding that he would try to buy a ticket over the phone. "I'm going to see if I can get through that way."

Arendt wasn't the only one having problems. Other fans reported that they couldn't even access the MovieFone site. CNET tried to access the site for much of the afternoon and was unable to buy a ticket through it.

Fans that did get through to MovieFone were likely to find that they couldn't buy tickets online for their particular theater. AMC, for instance, just began offering online tickets with Phantom Menace, but only at theaters in Los Angeles, San Diego, Kansas City, and Chicago. Online tickets were not available to AMC customers in the San Francisco Bay Area, San Antonio, Atlanta, and other places.

Barry Parr, e-commerce analyst at International Data Corporation, said the problems users faced trying to access MovieFone represent a "lost opportunity" for the company. With all the hype surrounding Phantom Menace online and off, the company had the chance to convince people to buy their tickets online, and the fact that many users were unable to do so "is not going to inspire confidence," Parr said.

But despite the problems, the Star Wars "prequel" could be a boon for online ticket sales in the future by raising awareness among movie goers that they can buy their tickets on the Net.

"This could be one of those threshold events in that particular business," Parr said.