Puppet's Got a Brand-New Bag
Online ticket seller Fandango is finding that its customers' opinions are more valuable than their money.
By Geoff Keighley

(Business 2.0) – When marketers from MGM called in 2002, asking for a demographic breakdown of people who'd bought tickets to war movies, Art Levitt, CEO of online ticket seller Fandango, was surprised. "Back then I didn't think we'd be getting into market research," he says.

But with a database containing the age, location, and purchase habits of each user who registers to buy advance movie tickets, Fandango was able to help MGM hone its marketing campaign for the movie Windtalkers. And similar requests gave Levitt a revelation: Rather than simply selling tickets, Fandango might get more value from the 1.7 million of its registered users who have opted to receive e-mail by turning them into the ultimate focus group for movie marketers.

Based in Santa Monica, Calif., Fandango runs exclusive online ticketing for 13,000 screens and sells about 2 percent of U.S. movie tickets to the 5 million users who visit the site each month. But lately Levitt has been pitching the company as an information link between filmmakers and moviegoers. So far, studios are paying for custom research and regular reports about Fandango's user base. Levitt says nonticketing initiatives (including advertising) already account for almost 50 percent of Fandango's revenue. (The privately held company's annual sales are estimated to be about $40 million.) "Rob Moore [a former partner at Revolution Studios] called up and said, 'Give me a list of every kids' movie for which you've ever sold a ticket,' " Levitt recalls. A few days later, Moore returned the list with certain titles highlighted. Fandango then sent the trailer for one of Revolution's family-oriented movies to users who had seen those films.

Movie research--a business worth an estimated $200 million a year--has been dominated by companies like Nielsen Entertainment NRG, which specializes in offline activities such as exit polling. But Fandango offers something unique: the buying histories of millions of moviegoers. Last summer, for instance, Fandango was hired to ask people who had bought tickets to Bewitched if they remembered Nicole Kidman swiping a Visa Signature card. NRG and others also perform surveys of product placement recall. But those companies rely on subjects to verify that they saw a particular movie. "If you put $40 on your credit card to go see the film, I can be a lot more confident you really saw it," says Jonathan Helfgot, VP for research at Twentieth Century Fox.

Still, Levitt says Fandango is just getting started in research, and he claims no ambition to dethrone NRG. That's wise, since Fandango's data does not represent all American moviegoers. (Kids, for instance, don't have credit cards to buy online.) And soon rival Movietickets.com may enter the fray: In April, Hollywood Media (Movietickets.com's owner) announced a deal with NRG to track sales of Broadway tickets.

Of course, Levitt is accustomed to exploiting unforeseen opportunities: In 1984 he sold a couch to Disney CEO Michael Eisner, who hired him on the spot as A personal assistant. "I want us to become part of the life cycle of a movie," Levitt says. "I want to test the concept, test the trailer, sell advance tickets, and then see if you'd consider buying the DVD." With the movie business down 8 percent this year, he also has to hope Hollywood makes more movies that consumers actually want to see. -- GEOFF KEIGHLEY