How Movie Theater Management Made Me A Better Critic

By  · Published on October 12th, 2015

This weekend, during a particularly long wait for the MTA bus service, I finally had an opportunity to read Richard Brody’s piece in the New Yorker looking at the link between film culture and the video store. The piece – which serves partially as a review of Tom Roston’s new book I Lost It At the Video Store: A Filmmakers’ Oral History of a Vanished Era and partially as Brody’s own musing on the industry – is a thought-provoking and enjoyable read about the link between the video store and modern filmmakers who grew up as part of that culture. And it got me thinking about my own links between exhibition and film criticism.

Despite the fact that owning one was my dream for many years – and that I spent a month after college in a misguided attempt to get a job with a local chain in my college town – I never had the chance to work for a video store. My home town only had three: two Blockbusters at either end of the city and one independent video store in the middle (who, I might add, was mostly an adult video store masquerading as a place to rent new releases). What I did do was run movie theaters. From the year that I graduated high school to two years after a college – a span of seven years – I was the manager for a small independent theater chain in Southeast Alaska. The theaters had been owned by the same family for over one hundred years, dating back to the 1800s when people were still flocking to the then-territory in search of gold. The CEO was the granddaughter of the original theater owner and still runs the company to this day. On busy nights you can see her working the popcorn machine; she was old school like that.

And while, like everyone, there are plenty of reasons for me to look back at my late teens and early twenties with disdain, these seven years also served as the catalyst for everything that came next. It helped keep me connected the film industry in a city where film of any kind did not exist; it also built the foundation of my later attitude as a film student and critic. I don’t offer this as a rejoinder to Richard Brody’s piece – not to compare the movie theater experience with the video store experience – but rather, as my own fond memories of how film exhibition informed the writer that I am today.

Everyone Likes Movies You Think Are Bad

In the years since they began to struggle, we’ve focused so strongly on the positive experience of the video store – the communities that were formed around our local rental place or the clerk who served as our earliest programmer – that we sometimes forget to challenge our own assumptions about taste. For seven years at my theater chain, I disagreed with many of the selections made by our Director of Operations, but my opinions were not shared by the majority of people who walked through our door. Every night I would stand in the back of the theater and listen to people laugh at the newest gross-out comedy, or listen in the hallway as people gave glowing reviews to some of the worst films we had to offer. And while it may have been tempting at times to weep for the passing of good taste, it was also tough to reconcile that smiling family of four with the death of culture.

Perhaps this was a slightly different experience coming from a small town. In a big theater, it’s not difficult to forget the trees and only see the forest; easy to reduce the audience of a new Adam Sandler movie to a series of bad decisions in life that all led to this exact screen at this exact time. In a small town, though, everyone is recognizable. It reminds you that taste in cinema is only a part of who people are. Teachers, politicians, ministers, law enforcement, and many, many more walked through my front door. Family friends and the parents of people I’d known my whole life. Either these people were willfully ignorant regarding their effect on American pop culture or the success of art cinema just wasn’t that important. Therefore, it was always going to be my job to encourage them to care rather than treat them as people who needed to be told why they were wrong.

Every Film Has a New Audience

When you work for an independent theater company, you don’t always have the option of running with both a projectionist and a floor manager for every single shift. And this often meant pulling double-duty. You would take a few minutes to thread the projectors before you opened the doors and spend the next hour on the floor as customers came in. When it was time to start the films, you would head to the booth and press the button. If it was a Friday or a Wednesday and film work needed to be done, you’d often have to split your evening between inventory and film work. And this sometimes meant not taking the extra time to clean the ends of reels or peel off splicing tape when a quick snip and a piece of masking tape would do just as nicely.

Over time, though, these little imperfection or one-frame subtractions add up. We’ve all sat through an arthouse screening of a 35mm print with scratched-up reel changes or missing seconds; one lazy or rushed projectionist for a first-run print turns into a dozen or more by the end of its theatrical run. In the year that I worked at an actual arthouse theater – under the supervision of a head projectionist who took pride in his craft – I would spend countless hours meticulously cleaning prints or identifying torn sprockets that could be easily repaired. Film prints that had been in circulation for decades – whose colors were faded or obscured by emulsion – still needed to be treated as if they were about to be seen for the first time, because in many cases, this was absolutely true. We can sometimes get bogged down in the minutiae of what we do and forget the role we play as film and audience go-between. Be dedicated to your craft each and every time out.

Always Talk to the Customer

Whenever the crowd would allow it, I would always shift my box office person to the concessions stand and sell tickets myself. This gave me some valuable face time with customers, an opportunity to subtly nudge people in the direction of our movies that I thought were most deserving – you would be surprised at how many people randomly show up at theaters with no idea what is playing and when – but, more importantly, an opportunity to get a feel for the type of crowds. Was a film a hit with an older audience? Was it mostly teenagers thinking that I was the sort who wouldn’t card them for an R-rated film? Were they excitedly talking to their friends about seeing a film or just sort of resigned, doing their best not to fall behind the curve in water cooler conversations? A decade-plus later, I can only remember snippets of these conversations, but I do know that most of those people didn’t act or thin like me.

I’m not suggesting that you should enable the comment sections at each of your blogs and read every single bit of bizarre feedback that people had to offer; that would be like giving the woman who sat through all of Speed Racer but didn’t much like it the full refund she had asked for. Instead, though, I try and remember to poke around and see what kind of alternate perspectives I can find about the movies on my mind. Now, like then, I try and talk to the people whose opinions I seem the least likely to agree with and find out if there’s some underlying perspective on a film that I might be missing out on. I cannot tell you the number of times I have found myself rethinking a film – both positively or negatively – based on the number of fourteen-year-olds who chose to attend it in large groups. I am not the target audience for every film that I see.

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)