The 5 Unexpected Downsides of Working at a Movie Theater
I spent five awful months of my life working the concession stand at a movie theater. The training video described that decision as "Getting close to the entertainment industry!"
I once watched a one-armed man chase a "Cash 4 Gold" sign across a busy intersection and he was closer to Hollywood than I ever was in the summer of 2008.
Going to movie theaters had been so magical for me as a kid, and by choosing to work there as a stupid, stupid teenager, I was retroactively destroying Santa Claus for myself.
These are five things that working at a movie theater ruined for me.
Movie theater employees work in a state of constant fear over hearing five ugly little words: "Popcorn. No butter, no salt." Why, you ask? Simple: Because popcorn already has butter and salt on it, that's why it's yellow and tastes mostly like salt. As you can probably imagine, whipping up a batch of movie theater corn devoid of these industry standard ingredients is tantamount to reinventing the wheel.
Most people, let's call them the 99 percent, order popcorn not just knowing, but hoping it will also include the delicious parts. The rest, or the 1 percent, if you will, are totally within their right to ask for popcorn with no added flavor, but to that right, I say, "Fuck you, right."
And you can use the butter as lube.
Here's the problem. When you get an order for unsalted, unbuttered popcorn, you either have to find a popcorn machine that's not in use (which, on busy days, is nearly impossible) or you have to dedicate one machine at the beginning of the day to fulfilling this person's specific request. After that, you drag the sack of unsalted popcorn from the dank corner of the food storage closet that's reserved for foodstuffs no sane person would willingly consume (the Raisinets are kept here also) and wipe down the entire machine, because when someone gets picky about their popcorn, they usually end up on the extremes of pickiness. They don't want any stray traces of butter in their bland bag, and they will CSI investigate that shit until they're satisfied that they've been given untainted concessions.
Even worse, popcorn (the tasty kind) followed me everywhere. The smell stuck to my work clothes in ways that I'd never thought possible, and since I was only given one work polo, rewashing it every time I got the chance didn't save me from becoming popcorn's unwilling mascot. You become sort of a landfill of popcorn smell. You had the oldest popcorn smell, which was smashed down and covered with newer popcorn smell, which was soon to be tamped down and replaced with an even newer popcorn smell. In no time at all, you become the saddest example of stratification ever.
Imagine smelling like you just got bukakked by the entire Redenbacher family.
Nachos were even worse, which is a statement that rightfully should never need to be said, because nachos are better than almost anything. Not when you work at a movie theater, though.
Nachos should be and usually are one of the easiest foods to prepare because they can be just nacho chips or chips and whatever else you have. There's no clear definition for "nachos." If you have nacho chips covered in centipedes, they are still nachos. Nothing changes.
"Eh, just throw some extra jalapenos on there and it'll be fine."
Except nacho chips are not necessarily known for their structural stability. It doesn't take a lot of pressure for your bag of chips to become a bag of large, tasty crumbs, and, as luck would have it, management at the theater I worked at dictated that giving customers anything less than a full chip was a straight up slap in the goddamn face. The customer isn't paying eight bucks to have a bottom-of-the-bag assortment. They want complete, round nachos. Thus, making nachos became a needle-in-a-haystack endeavor of carefully picking out the chips that weren't shattered and slowly assembling them into nacho trays.
Note that this tray will also cost more than your hourly pay.
And while, along with the broken chips, there were usually a decent amount of ones that stayed strong, you often ended up with bags and bags of imperfect chips. These poor chips had no further purpose. There was no discount for nacho trays made up of chip shards, so the dumpster became an Island of Misfit Chips, chips that just wanted a loving family to devour them.
Midnight releases are one of the many things that get worse as you get older. When you're a teen, they combine a number of thrills: movies, late nights, and, hopefully, friends. You're high on adrenaline and ready to bust out your costumes, accents, and excitement on anyone you can, including the theater employees, who have to take it all.
I worked during a superhero-filled summer. Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Hancock, and The Dark Knight came out, and I endured the storm for each of them. Well, for the first and last one, mostly. The Incredible Hulk was made for people to catch it on FX three years later, and seeing Hancock at midnight is kind of like getting a spider web tattoo on your elbow. It's neat, man. Real neat.
"It holds a really deep meaning to me of the time I got a terrible tattoo."
The Dark Knight was nothing less than insanity, as parents figured that a sixth Batman film would be no different from a Jack Nicholson-laden first, and therefore let their children and man-children run amok. Feeling the effects of freedom at 12 a.m. while you're dressed as the Joker leads you to do things that any normal person would think is a waste of time, including testing out your Heath Ledger impression for the people at the concession stand.
"A medium popcorn, no wait, a small. Why so serious?"
Please order your food, you awful nerd.
Plus, all of these people have only seen the trailers, so they're stuck repeating the same four goddamn lines. At certain points, the brain becomes enraged, numb, and a combination of both when exposed to "A little fight in you. I like that" an increasing number of times, and the playful banter you sometimes feel obliged to engage in with the customer is steadily replaced by a stream of "Yep. That's the Joker alright. Enjoy your movie."
"You quote one more line, and you actually will have to tell people how you got those scars."
For small midnight premieres, it's not a problem. When The X-Files: I Want to Believe was released, the movie theater became the first episode of The Twilight Zone. I imagine that, in my manager's eyes, an X-Files movie released eight years after anyone gave a shit about that particular stack of files was going to bring hundreds of eager ticket buyers out from under their porches. If you're able to guess that she was very wrong in her assumption, I think I might've found a decent career for you that's close to the entertainment industry! No one showed up and I just shot the shit with my friends until the manager gave up and sent me home.
For larger openings, where people are constantly going in and out of the theaters, you stay the entire time, standing behind the counter and marveling that a blockbuster film about a shut-in who dresses like a bat could fill two-and-a-half hours.
Either way, the only thing you want to do is get the fuck out of there and go to sleep.
I have never seen a good-quality recording of a film that was made from inside the movie theater. Maybe I'm going to the wrong YouTubes, but every time someone tries to capture a film with their own video camera, they decide quickly that they'd much rather re-enact Cloverfield and violently shiver around until they figure that it isn't worth the effort to both convulse AND try to sit through a movie. The idea that there are people in the same world I live in who think "I spent money to see this movie. Therefore, I must ruin this opportunity in order to ineptly record it and put it on a site that will show me absolutely no gratitude" baffles me.
The theater I worked at had a very strict policy against video cameras, mainly because they didn't want any more complaints about some asshole ruining the show with his distracting equipment. They'd send out ushers at various intervals to go and check each audience to make sure no one had chosen Mamma Mia! as the jumping-off point for their Internet piracy career.
"Nah, dude, I'm not filming the movie. I'm filming people making out. That's cool, right?"
Very rarely would you catch people with their cameras out, because most people have the common sense to pay for a ticket and enjoy themselves like a normal human, but when you finally did, it was always special. Modern man has formed a very tight connection between ourselves and our technology, and when that connection is threatened, we go fucking crazy.
It is rare to find the breed of person who complies quietly and politely when they're told to shut off their camera in the dark of the theater. This person was aggressive enough in their ridiculous endeavor to actually follow through with pointing a video camera at something that a video camera has already recorded once (which, if you didn't know anything about how cameras work, is only the second worst way to show off their capabilities, just short of saying "Look at my cool camera!" and then throwing it against a wall). Now, suddenly, some guy in a purple work polo, the guy who shilled you snacks, is going to tell you to stop? You're doing one of the most illogical things you can do in a movie theater! Stopping is not, nor will it ever be, part of the plan.
Don't even think about saying it.
Suddenly you're launched into an argument about stealing movies with a guy who's doing it in the dumbest way that he knows how. You could go into how it hurts an industry when you illegally share films online, and how it hurts the respect that everyone has for you when you share your own home movies of another movie. Instead you're forced to stage-whisper quick commands over a crowded row of people to a person who is getting angry at you for sheepishly enforcing rules upon them. Now the audio in his shit-for-shot remake is ruined by a pesky theater employee who just doesn't want to hear more complaints about the guy who has deemed it his responsibility to ensure that the world has at least one free, low-quality version of WALL-E.
I don't know a lot about economics, but I know enough that, when people have put money into something like a movie, they do it with the hope that it will bring that amount of money back and more. There's a pretty decent margin between The Lone Ranger's budget and the amount of money that represents the American people's complete non-interest in it, and you can't fill that margin with smiles. I know that it seems weird that people would spend millions of dollars for The Avengers 2: Remember After the Credits of the First One? Yeah, It'll Be That Guy with the interest of living comfortably off of the profits, but they do.
"Honestly, it's a project done out of love ... of hookers and cocaine."
Sadly, as soon as your friends hear that you got a new job at the movies, any knowledge they have of how the economy works is thrown out the window. People have this misconception about free tickets as if there's a system in place that will allow you to get your friend, your friend's little brother, and your friend's girlfriend in for free on the Friday of the film's debut, over and over again. It doesn't matter whether you work in concessions and ushering, like I did, or in the box office. When you work at a theater, apparently you have some kind of pull that allows you to sneak people past the entire machinations of what keeps movie theaters in business.
The people who run the theater are even more hesitant to provide any sort of free ticket service for your cheap friends. Some of the money coming in goes to them, and when you say, "Excuse me, but could I possibly cut back on that chance for income a little bit?" they don't take it warmly.
It's almost like they're trying to run a legitimate business or something ...
I never had enough clout in my position to Oprah my way into giving out free tickets to everyone. My friends took this as a sign of me being an asshole, because apparently their friends who work at Home Depot or Target are just giving away free weed eaters and nickel-finish picture frames (respectively) from the trunks of their cars.
If working at a movie theater got me any closer to Hollywood, it was only the part where you realize that all of your friends are leeches who just like you because of the doors they think you can open for them.
Daniel left a piece of his soul behind in that theater. If you find it, let him know on Twitter.