SAN FRANCISCO — Hoping to link the computer screen to the silver screen -- and make a little money in the process -- two Internet giants launched ventures Wednesday to direct Web surfers into movie theaters.
Google Inc. and Amazon.com Inc.'s Internet Movie Database separately said they would start selling movie tickets through their respective websites. That would accelerate the trend of transforming familiar websites into full-featured online services that allow people to search the Internet, buy stuff, plot a trip or plan a night out.
Online sales are a small portion of overall box-office receipts, which tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co. said hit a record $9.4 billion last year. The online market is stunted, analysts said, because Internet ticketing services strike exclusive deals with cinema owners, forcing consumers to hopscotch across the Web to find tickets for their neighborhood multiplex.
In fact, Internet Movie Database partnered with Fandango Inc. and Google with Fandango's smaller rival, MovieTickets.com Inc. -- and neither service sells tickets to theaters represented by the other.
"Over time, you're going to have to have some kind of consolidation or joint marketing agreements," said Larry Gerbrandt, media and entertainment analyst at Los Angeles-based AlixPartners. "The whole idea is to make it easier to buy a ticket, not harder."
With its new service, Mountain View, Calif.-based Google lets users not only buy tickets but also search for actors, movie titles or such general keywords as "great action sequence," then returns movie reviews that fit the bill.
Typing "Movie: Tom Hanks on island talking to volleyball" delivers reviews for "Cast Away." For films in theaters, Google Movies also returns local show times and, with a few clicks, lets surfers use MovieTickets.com to purchase tickets from such theaters as AMC.
Google said it wouldn't get a commission from movie ticket sales. Instead, the company expects to generate more searches for movie-related terms, which it hopes will in turn encourage companies to buy more movie-related ads.
As for Amazon, neither its Internet Movie Database unit nor Fandango would say whether the company would get a cut of the ticket sales. But the partnership means that Amazon will reach customers during more of a film's life; the online retailer will sell people tickets to see a movie in theaters, then months later will sell them the DVD.
No one seems to know how much of the movie box office has been captured by Web-based sales. The leading companies that report box-office receipts don't track online sales. Technology consulting firm Jupiter Research estimated that consumers spent $560 million on movie tickets online last year, which would be about 6% of overall box-office sales.
People tend to go to the Web to snap up tickets for hot new releases that are expected to sell out quickly. For example, Fandango calculated that it sold 13% of all opening-weekend tickets for "Fahrenheit 9/11" and 8% of all opening-weekend tickets for "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King."
But heading to the movies is often a last-minute decision, which means consumers are less likely to use the Web for buying movie tickets than they are to buy seats for sporting events or music concerts, Jupiter Research analyst David Card said.
And the industry is stunting its own growth by making big players choose sides, he said. For example, Yahoo Inc. uses Fandango and sells tickets to its stable of theaters, while America Online Inc.'s Moviefone uses MovieTickets.com and its theaters.
"There's no question it's got to be inhibited by the fact that you have to go to three places to be able to buy tickets for every theater in your neighborhood," Card said.