A Trip Through a Filmgoer's Badlands

A tense tale from the phone lines where some Star Wars fans are gathering.
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And so it was, finally, time to get tickets to

Star Wars -- Episode I: The Phantom Menace

, the first Star Wars film in 16 years. Since I'm loath to sit out in the cold for several days in front of Manhattan's

Ziegfeld Theater

(if you're old-fashioned, it's the only place to see an epic, seeing as the theater only has one screen), I opted for the reliable

Moviefone

which

America Online

(AOL)

has agreed to buy, the real

Badlands when it comes to conducting business.

Buying tickets over Moviefone is an art form, one that exists at a level that rivals the most rigorous games of Go Fish for its blind, mindless bluffing. Opt for Moviefone for crud like, say,

Batman and Robin

and you're whacked with all kinds of service charges for drivel that makes Steven Seagal look like a subtle thespian. But it's necessary for this, the most anticipated film since

Return of the Jedi

. Alternatively, you could end up on

eBay

(EBAY) - Get Report

trying to score a pair for $400.

My goal: to buy 12 tickets -- the limit -- for opening night, May 19, for me and some of my 'droogs,' as Anthony Burgess might put it.

Before telling you what I did, picture this: Star Wars has grossed over $400 million in the U.S. since its release in 1977.

All

of those who saw it are primed to see this movie. And there's a generation of kids who weren't around in 1997.

But these players haven't prepared like I have. I have 777-FILM on auto-dial on my phone, which has two lines. I've checked out the Moviefone

Web site, to get an early look at show times, which include 4 a.m. and 7 a.m. I want 8:15 p.m.

I dialed Moviefone one week in advance to see how long I could remain on hold before the machine kicked me off. I could stay on about 20 minutes (when, in fact, I hung up out of boredom). The only thing I haven't done is post a sentry outside the theater (where people are supposedly offering hundreds of dollars to the folks waiting on line).

But until today, May 12, I've been trying to get information, without success. No mention of

Star Wars

yet. Moviefone's Web site is conducting a countdown -- but it's of no help right now, because the server isn't responding. New economy; same old technicians.

Now, remember that there are maybe 250,000 people all trying to dial in at the same time, 3 p.m. on Wednesday. (OK, maybe two people and 249,998 nerds). If I don't get through, it's a sign -- somebody is betting this movie is really going to sell. (If you've missed the Star Destroyer-sized hype around the film, you must be living in a cave.)

But here's my ace in the hole: I'm dialing before 3 p.m., planning on staying on hold while the rest of the suckers wait until the bell sounds. At 2:40 p.m. I start dialing -- dancing back and forth between the two lines easily. No luck -- the line is busy.

Argh. My heart pounds once, and I wince. I expected a busy signal after 3 p.m. -- you'd have to be a fool to go in at that hour. I figured this time frame was reserved for the sickos (like myself).

My partner in all this -- we'll call him Adam, since that's his name -- is also working his phone at an undisclosed location ('cause I'm not telling you), and in his usual calm manner, he urges me to get back to the phones.

At about 2:45 p.m. I get through. I scroll through the options. They're not taking orders yet.

Between 2:45 and 2:55 p.m. I listen to previews. I crack my knuckles. Individually at first, then in pairs, then in fours. (I'm wearing a headset.)

At 2:58 p.m., I try to get through: "Advance ticketing for Star Wars will not begin until 3 p.m. EDT -- please call back another time," I'm told. Darn it. This guy's good.

Very good

.

Finally, at approximately 3:02 p.m., the floodgates open. I bid for 12 tickets for the 8:15 p.m. show opening night.

Whack. I'm hit. This is brutal -- I'm signed up for one

adult

ticket and two

child

tickets. Now I'm completely freaking out. I build my sandcastles alone on the beach, so this is useless.

Getting 12 tickets is a lie, at least over the phone, and now I want out. Maybe I was wrong about this in the first place. I do a quick reverse, and it looks like I'm going to be all right. I opt for eight tickets. That doesn't work. Six at a time, he tells me, six at a time. I drop my order down to six. Finally, my offer's accepted.

Confirmation takes longer than expected. I'm stuck with the middle of the theater, left side, along the aisle. "Your tickets will not be confirmed and your credit card will not be charged if you hang up," the other side tells me. I'm cursing this guy, 'cause he's a genius at playing the waiting game.

I wait. And wait. Two minutes. Three minutes. Finally, my bid is accepted, with the usual commissions that jack up the price by 16%. But it's still not $600, which some moron in California bid on eBay for two tickets offered at less than $50 each.

That's it. I try half-heartedly for six more, but to no avail. The myth, apparently, is alive: Those left on the phone are now vying with the guys in sleeping bags for the 4 a.m. showing Wednesday. Am I a moron for going through this?

George Lucas

will tell me soon enough.