We all know what it's like when there's some big event that we're all dying to see. Not long ago, if we wanted a ticket to it, we'd have to camp out in front of the ticket office, days earlier even, to be reasonably certain we'd have a shot at getting in. And while most of us probably wouldn't camp out, we'd possibly be thinking "God, I'd never do that, but hey, that guy should get in. He's crazy enough to do it, he should get in."
Today, much of life is online. We sit at home or at work, our eyes and hands attached to computer screens and keyboards. (Or, you have an iPhone and fondle it all day, but I digress) Tickets become available for purchase on websites. Ideally, people get ready to order at a certain time, click their way through the ordering process, and if tickets sell out, they are told immediately. Tickets can then be printed and voila. No waiting in the rain overnight.
This is not what happened last night for the American Film Institute's 40th Anniversary film screenings. Yes, one should expect an exceedingly high demand. After all, when in your life have you the opportunity to choose to see any one of these:
- Star Wars, presented by George Lucas?
- When Harry Met Sally..., presented by Billy Crystal & Rob Reiner?
- The Shawshank Redemption, presented by Morgan Freeman?
I applaud AFI's choice of screening the films at the Arclight. However, Arclight Cinemas online ticketing system is infamous for having a lousy web-server architecture that buckles under any sort of ticket demand. AFI went with a third party solution for email registrations and notifications called Convio. They were SUPPOSED to email registerees with news and "tickets are now on sale" reminders, one would hope well before there was no chance of getting them.
Last night at roughly 12:05 AM I checked my email. Hmm, no AFI announcements. I checked the AFI page. "Tickets are on sale! Buy now!" Huh. Clicked the link, which redirected to Arclight's main AFI listing page. I picked "Star Wars". My cursor spun and spun for about 3 minutes. Then, a text page with XML errors, spitted out by a Microsoft ASP web server. Not a good sign! I opened up two more tabs in my browser -- maybe the site hadn't started selling tickets yet and the techs at Arclight were getting things ready. For those I selected "Shawshank Redemption" and "When Harry Met Sally..." More XML error pages. About ten minutes later, I finally got a page asking me how many tickets to look for. Yay!
I noticed it allowed one to buy up to 10 tickets, just like for their normal movies. Damn, that's not a good idea at all. There are maybe 400 seats in a theatre. Does that mean the first 40 people to log in could take all the seats??? Hardly a fair policy. I tried 2 Star Wars tickets. Very long pause. Another XML error page. Shit! Then I tried just asking for 1. Nope. Server crash. The other two movies just hung forever and I finally set them to go to the Arclight front page and clicked back in. I tried other Arclight services just to see if it was movie demand or some critical failure on their backend. Tried requesting my password. "Sorry, not available" on a page with garbled HTML. Huh! Good job, Arclight techs. AFI (sponsored by Target) would be proud.
On and on this went, constantly managing three tabs, trying all movies till 1:40 in the morning. At 12:30 AM, I received my first email: "AFI Tickets are now on Sale!" Gee, thanks -- there are none left, you schmucks. Getting to any sort of real pages was tedious and rare. Nearly always, XML server errors. I did manage to get to a few "Sorry, there are no seats available" screens eventually, but even those were difficult and slow to get. This server was getting the crap beaten out of it by something and I don't think it was hundreds of people all doing what I was doing. If the scenario were the first hundred people all logged in asking for 10 seats each, a normal web-server could have handled it and let everybody else know "Sorry, there are no seats." But Arclight's was choking to death.
And that leads me to my suspicion, which my coworker colleagues who know a lot about web-server architecture agree with. The Arclight was probably hit with a MASSIVE attack of automation scripts (called "robots") designed to order tickets. These guys could (theoretically) hit the site hundreds if not thousands of time per second, choosing 10, 9, 8... down to 1 tickets over and over. Arclight has absolutely NO ROBOT prevention in their system. No password check, no captcha's (those annoying things where you have to type letters you see). I bet you $$$ that if one were to check the server logs, there would be a dense pattern of activity unnatural to human beings.
The result of course is that nobody I know got tickets. The only movies available in the morning were for Spartacus and Beauty & the Beast. (I bought 2 of these as a consolation prize to myself for all that wasted time.) How could anyone have? Now some enterprising folks can charge $100+ for tickets that were $25 (although I have not seen these up online yet. Let me know if you do.)
Nobody camped out the night before. There's nobody to say "Oh, well you fool, you deserve it." to. There is no good side of this story, only pathetic planning, poor technology, and probably lots of money spent on worthless marketing, since their was no way for anyone (short of a hacker) to buy these tickets.
I just hope the AFI decides to go with competent partners for its 45th Anniversary.