Alexis Ramsey spent 45 minutes online buying opening night tickets for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" when they went on sale in October, desperate not to miss out on what's widely expected to be the movie event of the year.
And she's not even a "Star Wars" fan.
"There was this kind of anxiety-inducing thing," the 28-year-old Virginia resident said. "We didn't want to miss out on what was happening."
That fear of missing out has helped drive more than $50 million in domestic pre-sales for "The Force Awakens," breaking the record set by "The Hunger Games" in 2012. Those sales aren't just being welcomed by Walt Disney Co., which is releasing the film, but by the entire movie industry.
Hollywood is enamored with advance ticket sales, in part because they enable theater chains to glean detailed data about their customers' tastes and moviegoing habits so that they can better program their schedules to meet consumer demand. Advance sales also provide a vehicle for capturing email addresses, a precious commodity for any consumer business.
"While it's still a nascent piece of the overall business, it's going to continue to become a bigger and bigger thing," said Dave Hollis, head of distribution for Burbank-based Disney. "Technology is going to continue to do more to build a relationship with consumers."
For the studios, early ticket sales help generate hype for hoped-for blockbusters and get an idea of how their movies will perform once they open. Above all, they lock in moviegoers' money and time weeks before their films hit theaters.
Advance sales for Universal's February hit "Fifty Shades of Grey" helped stoke excitement among the film's largely female fan base and gave couples and groups of friends an incentive to reserve seats before its opening over Valentine's Day weekend. "Fifty Shades" was one of five Universal films this year that were among the top 10 advance ticket sellers.
"We were able to use the availability of tickets and the early sales success to generate even more interest in the film," said Nick Carpou, head of domestic distribution for Universal. "We were able to announce it and create that early heat."
There are other benefits too. When you pay for a ticket at the box office — and most people still do — you reveal little or no information about yourself and your moviegoing tastes. But when you buy an advance ticket with a credit card, you are giving theater chains or ticket services information such as email address, gender, date of birth and Zip Code. They can then use that information to target you for future promotions, based on how often you visit your neighborhood theater and what your preferences are.
At present, theaters and online ticketing companies say they don't share all of their data with studios, although the largest online ticketer, Fandango, is owned by the same company — Comcast Corp. — that owns Universal Pictures.
Theater owners also love the growth of pre-sales because it gives them a chance to adjust their screening schedules in response to customer demand. They can add more showtimes and set aside more screens for hotly anticipated movies that might sell out screenings during opening weekend.
Getting customers to plan their treks to the multiplex well ahead of time is increasingly important for exhibitors, who must compete with the growing number of entertainment options competing for people's time and money, including sports, videos games, streaming services like Netflix and premium television. Those trends have put long-term pressure on theater attendance.
To better compete, the major exhibitors in recent years have invested millions in making their theaters more of a draw to discerning consumers with reserved seating, remodeled stadiums and dine-in options. The ability to buy tickets in advance is yet another premium service and one that is becoming increasingly popular.
At AMC Theatres, the second-largest chain in the U.S., about 1 in 10 tickets is sold in advance, up from just 1 in 20 a couple of years ago. Industry observers expect the numbers to rise in the near future.
"More moviegoing is planned and that's a good thing for the business," said Elizabeth Frank, executive vice president and chief content and programming officer at AMC. "The more the moviegoing occasion is planned, the more you see online ticket sales."
In many ways, the business is just playing catch-up with industries such as live music and sporting events, which have long relied on pre-sales. Movies remain largely spur-of-the-moment, cash-based transactions, and many theaters still don't sell tickets on the Web.
But online ticketing companies have helped to accelerate the trend. Fandango and MovieTickets.com used to enter exclusive agreements with theater chains to corner parts of the market. But that practice confused consumers, who had to go to different sites to buy tickets for different theaters. In recent years, the companies have ended the practice, allowing theaters to sign on to multiple sites.
Consequently, business has boomed. At MovieTickets.com, overall ticket sales are up about 40% so far this year compared with 2014. Fandango, which is based in Los Angeles, says its ticket sales are up 60% this year, partly driven by a surge in advance ticket sales.
In the case of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," tickets went on sale Oct. 19 during a "Monday Night Football" game on Disney's ESPN that aired the first full trailer for the highly anticipated film. The trailer racked up 128 million views in 24 hours. The rush of fans to Web portals bogged down the majority of ticket-selling sites.
The pre-sales figure is sure to grow significantly in the run-up to the movie as Disney ramps up its marketing campaign. The early ticket purchases have been a boon for MovieTickets.com and Fandango, which collect a percentage of the sales.
Joel Cohen, chief executive of MovieTickets.com. in Boca Raton, Fla., said his site got 15,000 new registered users solely because of pre-sales for "The Force Awakens."
But it's not just Wookiees and lightsabers driving demand. The site has gained close to 700,000 sign-ups to date this year, thanks partly to other hits like "Fifty Shades of Grey" and "Avengers: Age of Ultron."
When the movie business began to adopt online ticket sales 15 years ago, consumers were mainly motivated by a fear of sellouts. Today, however, the practice is more reflective of changing consumer habits in a digital world in which people buy virtually everything online. It also lets them choose their seats so they don't have to sit in the front of the auditorium.
Fandango President Paul Yanover says half of the tickets his company sells are not for opening weekends. With the new "Star Wars," for example, people have set aside tickets for screenings in January, weeks after the big opening.
"We have people buying 'Star Wars' into 2016. It's not just an opening-weekend phenomenon," Yanover said. "It's another indication there's a very clear momentum for where the market's moving."
Consumers like advance sales too because they can ensure that they have seats for opening night. It can also make the theater-going experience more convenient at a time when people are already making more of their overall purchases online.
Buying "seat insurance" was the motivation for Ramsey, whose husband is a "Star Wars" fanatic who has dedicated a section of their basement to the VHS tapes, toys and Pez dispensers from the franchise. "I've been shown the trailers over and over," she said, referring to the previews of the upcoming "Star Wars" film.
One of the biggest drivers of early ticket sales is big-screen technology company Imax Corp., which accounts for about a third of advance ticket sales domestically. "Star Wars" has proved to be especially beneficial to Imax, which has committed to playing "The Force Awakens" in its theaters for a month, but could extend the run for weeks.
Imax and other theater companies can use the pre-sales to determine how many screens and showtimes they want to dedicate to a popular movie.
Imax Entertainment CEO Greg Foster said his company has been scheduling "Star Wars" showtimes at unusual times like 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. to satisfy the demand for tickets.
"Literally every ticket-buying outlet crashed," Foster said. "All the money and all the servers couldn't handle all the pent-up demand."