Fans Overwhelm MovieFone's Web Site, Phone Lines

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MovieFone, New York, needed help from the Force this week to handle the calls and online visits its phone lines and Web site received from fans who were looking to buy advance tickets for "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace."


Many consumers could not access the phone service (777-FILM) or the Web site (www.moviefone.com) as the high volume taxed MovieFone's systems. If moviegoers didn't want to stand in line at local movie theaters, MovieFone was the only other source for tickets. The company, which is the country's largest movie-ticket service, charges a fee for each ticket that is ordered.


MovieFone officials said they thought they had taken every step to handle the sudden and expected increase of callers and online visitors and to make sure there were no system failures.


"Regarding the online service, we are increasing our capabilities by about 10 times, that includes Web servers and our bandwidths," Christine Fakundiny, director of marketing at MovieFone, said minutes after tickets went on sale at 3 p.m. last Wednesday. "For our telephone service, we are increasing our capabilities by about 30 percent, and that includes computers and physical telephone lines."


Mark Hardie, a senior analyst at Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA, was denied when he attempted to access the Web site an hour and a half after tickets went on sale.


"I don't think that they were prepared for the amount of traffic that was going to be coming," he said. "It is sort of like the Victoria's Secret thing where they told the whole world watching the Super Bowl to come to their site for the lingerie show, and then it couldn't handle the amount of traffic it got. I would look at this as a little stumble or a black eye for them."


MovieFone had been touting the ease of e-commerce in a print campaign, proclaiming, "Use the Fone, Luke," and encouraging consumers to use its phone service or Web site to buy tickets.


Fakundiny said people were receiving server time-out messages but a number of transactions were being processed.


"We increased our ability to handle the increase in a huge way," she said. "The volume may just be that incredibly high. If we knew exactly what types of numbers we would be seeing the first day, would we have increased the capacity that much more? Of course."


MovieFone gets 1 million calls a week, 450,000 in New York City alone. Jay Jay Nesheim, a public relations coordinator at MovieFone, said there was no way to predict the number of calls it would receive.


"This is probably going to be the most busiest periods of time we have ever experienced," Nesheim said, "and we do expect to get a lot of first-time callers."


MovieFone puts the names of its users into a database but only uses the database for research purposes.


"We do not do any type of follow-up mailings or call-backs to any of the people," Nesheim said. "We want to see what type of people we are attracting and who is using our service."


To coincide with the "Star Wars" release, MovieFone also relaunched its newly renamed Web site. Before being called MovieFone.com, it was called MovieLink. The site includes reviews from other moviegoers, reviews of upcoming movies and a "Star Wars" mini-site.
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