Working in a large movie theater necessarily alters one’s relationship to cinema itself, in terms of what movies you get to see, the constant feedback from other moviegoers, the organizational nightmare that is operating a building with over 20 screens, and cleaning up the incredible messes that people leave behind. As someone who loves movies, the messes and the stress of this fast-paced environment are always worth it, knowing that everyone in the building is there for one reason: to watch, think about, and talk excitedly about the movies we screen every day. I have worked at a multiplex for two years now, and while it is not the most prestigious job, it pays the bills and offers many unexpected perks.
One strange thing about working in a cinema is that you usually end up seeing snippets of basically every movie that is currently screening. Whether you are checking to see if the movie is screening properly, cleaning the theater at the end of the show, or merely wasting time in between tasks, there is something thrilling about glimpsing a few scenes from a movie you haven’t seen yet (or maybe even one you have seen). This fragmentary viewing piques your interest and gives you just enough information about the film’s visual and narrative style, the performances, the music, and the overall tone to draw you in and make you long to understand each scene in its proper context. Last winter, on a particularly slow day, I stopped into a theater and witnessed a glorious, colorful, incredibly choreographed musical sequence from Raees (2017), which I promptly bought a ticket for later in the week. The film is filled with gorgeously shot action and musical sequences, each of which is choreographed with the greatest care. It ended up being a wonderful film, and even if it hadn’t, the “Laila Main Laila” dance sequence is near and dear to my heart because it brightened up an otherwise grey and boring shift.
It goes without saying that also having bi-weekly access to free movies is one of the greatest perks of working at the multiplex. I can assure you that the job does not simply entail walking around and peeking in to watch movies all day, however. Running a movie theater is hard work. I cannot speak for programmers, distributors/film studios, or any administrative workers, but I can speak from the point of view of an on-the-floor employee. Multiplex employees need to be trained in the concession/hot food stand, box office, cleaning/ticket-taking/theater-checking, and other miscellaneous positions if the theater has an arcade, a VIP/alcohol serving area, or offers birthday parties. Running any one of these positions can be stressful and difficult, particularly during busy weekends and evenings when big franchise movies are screening. I cannot express how dizzying it is to work during a rush when a film such as Star Wars or The Avengers has been newly released. My theater has 24 screens, and it is a gigantic building, but when popular movies come out, there is little breathing room, the lineups sometimes going out the door. I know how easy it is to overlook the labor involved in running a movie theater, and people often grow impatient and irritable when they have to wait in long lines or if their food takes too long to prepare. It is important to remember that everyone is doing their best to make things run smoothly, and while we try and efface the frustration and hard work that goes into providing enjoyable movie theater experiences, this is not always possible or reasonable.
Picking up on the idea of long line-ups and popular movies, another perk (or at least, I consider it a perk) to working at the cinema is getting to observe which movies do well at the box office, and which ones do not. This summer, I watched as hundreds and hundreds of people bought tickets to Crazy Rich Asians (2018). My theater screened the film in three different cinemas, and for about a month every showtime was nearly sold out. There were days when my managers had to schedule extra people to accommodate all the guests hoping to see the movie. This was heartening to see – Crazy Rich Asians is a high-quality, funny, and tender romantic comedy, and is one of the only mainstream Hollywood movies to feature a predominantly Asian cast and crew, demonstrating that movies not about white superheroes can be popular, too. Then there are movies the pass through the theater unnoticed, barely drawing in any audiences at all. Most recent flops (at my theater, at least) include The Happytime Murders, Goosebumps 2, and The Spy Who Dumped Me. For whatever reason, people overwhelmingly chose not to see these movies. Even Halloween barely drew out audiences at my theater (save for last Wednesday), and is now relegated to a fairly small cinema in the back corner of the building. Of course, there has been lots of demographic research and critical thinking done on why some movies are popular and why some are not. Yet I may never understand why the Johnny English sequel sold out last weekend.
Since my theater has 24 screens, we do not just receive the big mainstream Hollywood fare, but also many independent features, documentaries, non-English language films, and special events (live operas/ballets, classic films such as Casablanca and The Apartment). I find this especially enjoyable, as it offers the opportunity for people to see movies they otherwise may not have access to, or may not have even been aware of. As I previously mentioned, my theater screens the biggest Hindi and Punjabi releases, as well as films from the Philippines, China, Japan, and various European countries. Some of these movies contend with mainstream Hollywood releases for drawing in the biggest audiences, and there is something so delightful about shaking Hollywood’s hegemony within the film world. It is also exciting to see people flocking to the theater to see documentaries on Picasso or Salvador Dalí, live performances of Samson and Delilah by the MET Opera, or perhaps an anniversary screening of John Carpenter’s original Halloween. No matter what we program at the theater, there are always a few people passionate enough to buy a ticket.
Besides free popcorn, coffee, and movie screenings, I have outlined a number of unexpected perks of working in a cinema. Sure, it is not a glamorous job, but if being surrounded by movies and the people who love them comforts you, the job’s frustrations somehow always feel worth it. This weekend’s releases include The Grinch, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, and Suspiria, and I cannot wait to talk with people about why they chose to buy a ticket for these films and what they thought of them.