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.

Not everyone is a believer. David Card, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research, doubts that the business will ever catch on in a mass-market kind of way in part because most consumers scoff at the idea of paying more than they already do to catch a movie.

"It's a big deal in urban areas on openings for blockbuster movies," Card said. "But it would take a major behavioral and cultural change for people to adopt this wholesale."

That assessment does not appear to discourage the online ticket sellers or their financial backers.

"That's what they said about airline ticketing and hotel reservations," said Jay Hoag, managing general partner of Technology Crossover Ventures, a venture capital firm that invested $15.5 million in Fandango.

Ticketmaster, which calls itself the world's leading ticketing company, has been selling seats to sporting events, live theater and concerts for years. Moviefone pioneered the advance ticketing concept for movies when it began selling tickets by phone about 13 years ago and then on the Internet in 1995. A few years later, America Online bought the service for $388 million from its founder, Russ Leatherman.

The purchase price inspired the launch of copycat rivals Fandango and MovieTickets in 2000. They burst onto the market, each having crafted an exclusive deal, along the lines of the Ticketmaster model, with one or more theater chains. For the ticket sellers it meant financial backing. For the theater chains it put their box office out on the Internet instead of ceding control of the ticket-buying pipeline.

This month AOL shifted the ticket sales operation to MovieTickets, where it is a minority investor, and chose to focus instead on offering movie information such as trailers, reviews and celebrity interviews. Now, AOL visitors are automatically linked to MovieTickets. MovieTickets claims hundreds of such links from Web sites, washingtonpost.com being one of them. The Yahoo Web portal sends its readers to Fandango.

The move intensified an already heated rivalry between Fandango and MovieTickets. Fandango says it sells tickets to more than 1,000 theaters and 11,500 screens through its partners, which include Carmike Cinemas, Century Theatres, Edwards Theatres, Loews Cineplex Entertainment, Regal Cinemas and United Artists Theatres. MovieTickets says it has access to 32 theater chains with more than 9,000 screens. Its investors include AMC Entertainment, Famous Players, National Amusement, Viacom and Hollywood Media Corp.

But all of that is inconsequential to the average consumer. For him or her, it's the ticket and the ease of buying it that count, not the company that sells it.

Consider Ellen Frishberg of Ellicott City. Now that she's discovered online ticketing, she sees no reason to bother with the box office, especially if her two children, ages 13 and 11, are in tow.

Frishberg doesn't want to risk showing up for a sold-out show. "Then [the kids] insist on seeing something else, and that something else is usually something I don't want them to see," she said.

Instead, she finds reviews of the movies her children want to see online. She then clicks onto the film's Web page, punches in her Zip code, locates the nearest theater, scans show times and types in her credit card number. At the theater, she claims her tickets, usually at an electronic kiosk or service desk.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Frishberg was picking up her tickets for "I, Robot" at the AMC Theatre in Columbia Mall. That means she purchased her ticket from MovieTickets, AMC's partner, though she did not know it.

To hear industry executives tell it, Frishberg's behavior -- from reading online reviews to typing in her credit card number -- illustrates why their business model works.

"When people started connecting the dots between checking the [showtime] information on the Web and seamlessly buying the tickets, that's when online movie ticketing really took off," said Mitch Rubenstein, co-chief executive of MovieTickets.

For theater owners, a booming online business could mean that more patrons will be loading up on popcorn and Coke instead of standing in line.

Well, that raises an interesting point. Buying tickets online rids moviegoers of the fear they'll be turned away from "Alien vs. Predator." But crowd management and theater staffing being what they are, movie fans can find themselves in line at the kiosk or the service desk, behind all those other prescient people who purchased online. In some cases, they find themselves in the same line as ticket buyers. And then they get to stand on the ticket-holders line and still have to arrive early to get a good seat.

But Art Levitt, chief executive of Fandango, promises eventual services to eliminate those inconveniences -- services such as print-at-home tickets, reserved seating, prepaid concession snacks. As these services get added in most major markets, he says, his will become a mainstream service.

"Everything in our mind is about enhancing the consumer's ability to go to the movies," Levitt said. "We put a lot of focus on customer service."

So what do the theater chains get out of it? More than just a happy customer, both Fandango and MovieTickets argue.

They retain control of the ticket-buying pipeline rather than ceding it to third parties. And by alleviating lines at the box office, theaters theoretically could cut their labor costs and maybe even see a boost in concession sales -- if online movie ticket buyers were to use the time they would have spent in line to buy a tub of popcorn instead.

Some of these chains also have an equity stake in the services they are aligned with, the executives said.

But Juliana Deeks, an analyst with Jupiter Research, said the revenue-sharing arrangement will never make the online ticketing business a big moneymaker.

Fandango and MovieTickets make their money solely off of the $1 or so surcharge tacked onto each ticket sold. That's nothing compared with the $3 and $10 surcharges that services such as Ticketmaster charge for sporting events and concerts, Deeks said.

"I just don't think the opportunity is huge," Deeks said.

Especially if consumers such as Jeremy Kirsch, a law student at Indiana University, keep resisting the charge. Kirsch, a tech-savvy 23-year-old, should be the ideal online ticket consumer.

But he's not.

"I'm just a student. I can't afford an extra dollar," Kirsch said.

The online ticket sellers, like any other online retailer, also face the challenge of tech-resistant consumers such as Nikolai Karapandzich, a Columbia resident who is in the Army. If he's in a real rush, Karapandzich lets his friends do the online buying for him because he does not want to risk punching his own credit card number into a computer.

"I'm just old-fashioned, I guess," said Karapandzich, 35. "I don't trust technology."

Even some of those who do say that buying online can get a bit confusing for those who do not realize that different services have exclusive relationships with different movie chains. For instance, some might go to MovieTickets and not find the movie they want at a nearby theater. They might give up because they don't realize that their theater of choice is listed with Fandango.

On that point, analysts and even the online movie ticketing companies agree, to a certain extent. Many of them believe that the two services might develop some kind of cross-linking relationship.

Or maybe one will just disappear.

"Does it logically make sense for [the business] to consolidate? Yes," said Hoag, the venture capitalist who invested in Fandango. "Does that always happen on the right timetable? No."