When thinking of life's big stressors, getting the kids into college, retiring on more than Social Security and hanging onto your job might come to mind.
But going to the movies?
That probably doesn't top the list -- until the box-office line starts to wrap around the corner for a blockbuster. And seats are as scarce as parking spaces.
Fear of missing "Fahrenheit 9/11" or "Spider-Man 2" on its opening weekend is just the kind of neo-urban neurosis that was begging for an intervention. And so it came to pass -- first, in 1989, by phone, then by Internet, where pioneer Moviefone was joined by MovieTickets.com and Fandango.com, with its on-screen commercials peopled by whimsical moviegoing paper-bag puppets.
The system is the same for all of them. MovieTickets; Moviefone, whose online sales are now handled by MovieTickets; and Fandango all process credit card orders for movie tickets, tacking on a fee for the service.
That fee, usually $1 per ticket, comes from consumers such as Laura Einstein of Washington, who regularly goes online to buy tickets.
"Whether I pay $9 or $10 for a movie doesn't really matter to me," said Einstein, a lawyer. "It alleviates the stress of arriving at a movie theater and seeing a really long line."
A lot of moviegoers don't share Einstein's view of ticket prices, but things that are luxuries one day have a way of morphing into entitlements a few months, or years, down the road.
Not quite yet, though. Online ticket sales made up only 4.3 percent of total movie sales last year. But the percentage of online sales tripled in the past three years, and growth should continue at least through 2008, the most recent data from Jupiter Research show.
Fandango and MovieTickets, which dominate the online movie-ticket business, report selling out entire theaters for some highly anticipated films. Fandango alone sold nearly 13 percent of tickets for Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" documentary on opening weekend.