Movie Ticket Buying Throughout History

The first movie theater in America opened over 100 years ago, on June 19, 1905, out of all places, in the steel town of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. 

According to NPR, the theater was named The Nickelodeon to combine the price of admission (yes, only one nickel) with ‘odeon,’ the ancient Greek word for theater.

We all know that the cost of a movie ticket has gone up over the years. The process of buying movie tickets has changed with the times too.

You no longer have to wait in line for hours to secure tickets for a blockbuster hit on the night it’s released, and you don’t have to pick up a newspaper to look up movie times for new movie releases.

Instead, there are a variety of ways to buy movie tickets online ahead of time, and the options have already been around for more than two decades, believe it or not.

Waiting in line, with the occasional mail-order ticketing

From 1905 all the way up to the 1980s, the only way to buy a ticket was to wait in line the night of a movie showing.

There were a few exceptions. In a recent essay, Martin Scorcese references the 1961 premiere of the film La Dolce Vita, where tickets were priced at a premium and you could reserve your seats via mail-order tickets. 

“Good things come to those who wait” must have been the philosophy for movie fans who were willing to wait a while and even camp out, in order to be the first in the nation to see a film’s premiere. 

In 1980, Star Wars fans were reported to wait for as long as 36 hours in order to get a good spot for the midnight premiere of The Empire Strikes Back.

This remained true for other films in the Star Wars franchise, plus many other blockbuster flicks.

Waiting in line, over the phone

If you wanted to see a movie, you couldn’t just pick up the phone to call the theater and ask about movie times. You had to snag a copy of the morning newspaper to see what movies were showing that day.

You also couldn’t pick up the phone to buy tickets. Even in the 1980s, when you could call a restaurant to make reservations, you still had to physically go to the movie theater to buy tickets.

In 1989, MovieFone was born out of businessman Russ Leatherman’s frustration with calling movie theaters and always getting a busy signal. Leatherman had the idea to create an interactive telephone movie guide that would give callers access to local theater listings and movie times.

Even more, you could pre-purchase tickets. Moviefone had to create a whole new system of operations for participating theaters, including will-call windows that would allow callers to pick up their pre-purchased tickets.

The “trend” of calling in for movie showings and tickets exploded in 1992, according to Los Angeles Business Journal: “aging baby boomers don’t like waiting in movie lines or playing roulette with their Friday and Saturday nights. They want to be assured of tickets before they go to a theater and apparently don’t mind spending an extra $1 per ticket for the MovieFone service charge.”

The following year, the premiere of Jurassic Park resulted in the biggest spike in buying movie tickets over the phone, according to Los Angeles Business Journal, which reported that Moviefone sold more tickets in advance for Jurassic Park than any other film in the company’s three years of existence.

Buying tickets ahead of time was not a passing trend, it became the usual behavior. 

Investor’s Business Daily reported that in 1996, the first self-service movie ticket kiosk was installed at Sony Lincoln Square Theatre in New York City, making it easier than ever to pick up tickets bought ahead of time over the phone.

According to a 1997 article published in Entrepreneur Magazine, Moviefone received 150 million calls from 1989 to 1997. As of 1997, they handled calls from up to 2.5 million moviegoers across 28 cities in the country.

Movie tickets go online, but you still have to wait in line

The new millennium brought Moviefone several online competitors, including Fandango and MovieTickets.com. 

These companies were pioneering movie ticketing technology, which meant there were some bumps along the way. A May 2000 Denver Business Journal article reported some customers seeing charges for a single ticket three times on credit card statements.

In March 2001, Variety Magazine published an article with the headline “Online tix picture mixed.” Reporter Ann Donahue noted that getting people to go from visiting an online site to purchasing is harder than expected. Less than 5% of site visitors end up buying tickets. 

Donahue said, “execs are divided on whether or not e-ticketing should be seen as a marketing ploy or an actual moneymaker.” However, the switch to online ticket buying meant less time waiting in line for theater goers and less personal costs for theater owners.

By 2003, according to The New York Times, one in five movie tickets were sold ahead of time in New York, but the habit was not yet the norm across the country; only 2% of all tickets nationwide were bought ahead of time.

At the time, New York Times reporter Terry Pristin speculated that although buying tickets online was meant to be more convenient, the increase in competition in the market added to the confusion for moviegoers.

Pristin interviewed several moviegoers who found the convenience of buying tickets ahead of time being canceled out by the confusion of which service to go to in order to buy tickets for a local theater. There was also a hesitation to provide credit card information online or over the phone. For popular new movie releases, it felt easier to wait in line at the local theater.

At the same time, Fandango and MovieTickets.com started offering an option to print your tickets at home instead of having to wait in a will-call line. 

Movie theaters were resistant to this change since a movie theater employee would have to be ready to scan barcodes on self-printed tickets and rip the stubs of tickets bought in person. However, customers were ready for the added convenience.

Movie tickets go mobile, with limitations

Around the same time, MovieTickets.com introduced the first-ever mobile app for buying movie tickets.

Several years later, in March 2006, Fandango announced a mobile movie ticket buying platform that could be accessed by Sprint and Nextel customers via mobile web and text. Once you purchased a ticket for a specific movie time, you got a text with a barcode image that could be waved in front of a scanner at the movie theater.

In 2007, MovieTickets.com introduced brand new mobile web applications with advanced personalization features. Their new solution allowed you to search for a film by theater location or title, view movie times, buy tickets, access new movie releases, get box office information, read movie news, and even view detailed theater maps. While this sounds like a given, it was pretty innovative for its time.

Not much changed until several years later. In 2011, Moviepass introduced a short-lived monthly movie admission subscription service, but it was messy. You couldn’t purchase tickets in advance or reserve seats for premium screenings, like hot new releases. You could only buy a movie ticket for yourself, making it difficult to coordinate plans with friends. In 2019, Moviepass exposed a ton of credit card data and soon after shut down the service.

Around the same time as the launch of Moviepass, national theater chains were inspired to launch their own apps to compete with the increase in options for buying movie tickets. In 2012, both Regal and AMC launched their own mobile apps to buy movie tickets, incorporating their in-house rewards programs for added perks, but there were limitations. You couldn’t view seating maps for a single new release across various movie times and local chains– you always had to start the purchasing process by selecting a specific theater, movie, and showtime.

In 2014, Atom Tickets launched a socially driven mobile app to buy movie tickets with the goal of making it easier to coordinate plans with friends. A key feature still available today includes Rally, offering a way to invite friends to one movie showing at a local theater. If everyone agrees on that movie time, the cost is split among the group rather than one friend footing the bill. 

Where are we now?

Movie_Tickets_Through_Time_Graphic_resized_
Movie ticketing has changed throughout the years with new technology, like the new Hollywood.com Movie Ticket App/ CREDIT: Ben Ahrens.

Since then, not much has changed in the mobile movie ticket buying world.

While added app features (like an augmented reality experience using in-theatre movie posters) can add to the overall experience of going to the movies, the process of buying tickets continues to be clunky. 

Despite having to buy movie tickets on your phone, the process is often a hassle, taking longer than it should in 2022.

You can buy a mattress, and maybe even a car, faster than you can buy movie tickets online.

Say you want to buy movie tickets for a new release like Top Gun: Maverick. You have to decide on a specific theater near you and showtime before getting a chance to see what seats are available. If the only seats remaining don’t feel worth the ticket price or there are only two seats available for your group of four, you have to start the process all over again.

Movie Ticketing Goes Hollywood.com

Fast forward to 2022. 

Hollywood.com just launched an app that completely re-imagines how you buy movie tickets online. You can reminisce and reimagine your first time going to the movies with the ALL-NEW Hollywood.com – Tickets & More App

The Hollywood.com app promises you tickets ahead of time for the hottest movies around. With the Single Screen Selection feature, the Hollywood.com app shows what movies are in theaters now, which theaters are near you, film showtimes, and available seats options all on one screen.

When buying movie tickets, you often compare several factors like the movie itself, available showtimes, nearby theaters, and seat options. Up until the Hollywood.com app release, each time you want to compare these factors, you must abandon the checkout process and start an entirely new transaction.

Unlike this one-dimensional experience, with the Hollywood.com app, you can compare all available combinations in seconds from one single screen in a single transaction flow. Once you find your ideal tickets, it’s just a few taps to purchase! Partnering with leading movie theater companies like AMC, the Hollywood.com  – Tickets & More App will have you falling in love with the movies even more.

Download the ALL- NEW Hollywood.com – Tickets & More app and discover a whole NEW way to buy tickets, starting with movie tickets.
Download for iOS: https://apple.co/3tiF0Jx
Download for Android: https://bit.ly/3yZcQa4 

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