5 Job Secrets Of A Movie Theater Grosser Than The Floor
We've all heard at least one story about something unsavory happening in a movie theater. Maybe you've even smuggled in a flask of rum, added it to your liter and a half of Coke (aka the small), and cried while watching Finding Nemo and whispering to Marlin about how he's so much better than the father who never looked for you when you were lost (to name a purely hypothetical example that we completely made up just now). But it turns out that what goes on behind the scenes at your local multiplex is far more disturbing.
We talked to theater managers Donovan King and Olga Lexell to learn about cinema's seedy underbelly. They said ...
Working With Disney Is Terrifying
A movie theater is standing in between the multibillion-dollar movie studios and the paying audiences that keep them afloat -- so you can imagine what kind of heat those studios bring on theater managers if they're not happy. So for instance, managing a theater means you get to see the scary side of Disney.
By now we're all well aware that the Happiest Place on Earth is run by people who will sue a day care over a drawing of Mickey Mouse without batting an eye, so imagine how hard they crack down on the guys in charge of showing their movies. Theater manager Donovan said a fellow manager was once fired because he ran a Disney trailer one day before it was supposed to be released. "One day he was there, the next, no one spoke of him. It sounds melodramatic, but it's true." Hey, we believe you -- if any company was capable of making people disappear in a Stalinesque manner, it would be Disney. The guy's family probably denies his existence now.
"Who? There never was a Bob."
"Disney was terrifying because of how much control they exercised over us. They would instruct us on how to set up a projector to make sure their movie looked just right. On one release they had a tech come out and install a special bulb, change the parameters of the projector, change how it fit the screen, and give new rules on quality checking the film. It was insane."
"Look, no one's going to enjoy The Lone Ranger unless we get it just right."
Their pickiness was inconvenient, to put it mildly -- they wouldn't release the key that was required to access a movie until five minutes before the first showing, which meant there was no time to make emergency changes if there was a problem (and problems are frequent, as we'll get to in a moment).
Then there was the time Donovan attended a conference for theater managers.
"Part of the event was the breakfast presentations. That let studios show us what they were working on and get us excited and talking about them. We went to Disney's, and these big burly guys in suits were standing at every entrance. We had to remove our cellphone and give it to them, get scanned with a magnetic wand and if it went off, we were given a quick pat down. Once inside, the doors were locked and the security guys continued to wander around to make sure we didn't have anything. It was cool to see early footage of Monsters University and Iron Man 3, but it's kind of hard to really enjoy your eggs and toast when you have a large man eyeballing you to see if you smuggled in a cellphone."
"Prepare yourselves for a magical experience ..."
But there's the stick, and then there's the carrot. Disney has an outstanding bounty on bootleggers -- any theater employee who catches one gets paid $10,000 if the thief goes to jail. So if you were thinking of taking a blurry, incomprehensible cellphone recording of a movie to share with your friends, make sure it's a DreamWorks flick.
Audience Members Have Sex, And Are Bad At Hiding It
Theater patrons are a diverse crowd. We might as well start by addressing the sexy elephant in the room: Yes, some of them are getting down and dirty, and according to Donovan, they're not subtle about it. "Most people are so incredibly dumb when it comes to fooling around at the movies ... they bring a blanket and sit in the back row. Do you really think I won't be suspicious of you being covered up with a blanket?"
You might expect this kind of behavior at 50 Shades of Grey or Whatever the Latest Nicholas Sparks Movie Is, but Olga says that some people get their motors going with the saucy antics of family friendly, animated comedies.
"Any projectionist will tell you they have walked in on some kind weird sex detritus after a movie -- at one point, I found a condom and small vodka bottles while cleaning out Despicable Me."
Look, you know as well as we do that some sick, sick, shit created these little freaks of nature.
There's also lots of your standard drunkenness and highness, but where people get really creative is in arguing for refunds. Shockingly, not liking the movie or being an irresponsible parent is not the fault of the theater, as Donovan explains:
"Remember the slow-motion gore fest that was Dredd with Karl Urban? Here comes the whole family! Then you get parents that want a refund when the kids freak out about seeing a guy's head blown to bits in super slo-mo. We couldn't give them refunds because we would warn them ahead of time, and they would get an attitude with us about it for questioning their parenting. Sometimes they would just drag the kid back in there instead of losing money or not being able to finish the movie."
"Well, guess you have to learn about the justice system someday."
But in general, it sounds like a person can learn a lot about humanity doing this job. Our other source, Olga, says the strangest experience she ever had was with a woman who argued that Olga was infringing on her Fifth Amendment rights by not letting her smuggle ice cream into the theater, which suggests a serious misunderstanding of either the Constitution or ice cream.
Meanwhile, Donovan witnessed tough-looking guys going into matinees of romantic comedies and coming out all choked up, while Olga saw little old ladies leaving bloody slasher films and complaining, not about the gore and nudity, but the quality of it that was on display. "I think I saw enough World-Weary Old Ladies Too Jaded for Horror Films to qualify that as a trope."
"You morons are stopping to have sex now? You horny bitches are so screwed."
Oh, and if you were asking yourself why she was so hard on the person trying to smuggle in outside food ...
The (Grossly Unhealthy) Concessions Are The Only Thing Keeping Theaters Afloat
There's a reason feeding a family of four at a movie costs more than a mortgage payment -- they are in fact gouging you on the concessions. Olga says that the cost of the kernels that go into a large popcorn is about 50 cents, so if our math is correct, 10 bucks for a giant bag of kernels and fake butter has a markup of ... a shit-ton (we're not great at math). All told theaters take home an 85 percent profit margin on concessions (though if you swing by a theater at the end of the night, many staff will be happy to give away the piles of perfectly good, unsold popcorn that would otherwise be thrown out). There's a reason for it, though: They make almost nothing on the actual ticket sales.
For the price of an extra pump you might as well buy your own gold-smelting factory.
Donovan told us that, on average, his theater made 10 cents per ticket. When Godzilla came out in 1998, they didn't make a dime. This is due to a complicated revenue sharing arrangement with the studios and distributors that can actually leave the theater in the red. That's right -- factor in the costs of running the theater itself, and they're actually losing money showing you movies. In other words, theaters are actually in the food business -- they're just restaurants that use movies to get you in the door. Oh, and they're serving food that makes a McDonald's menu look healthy.
A large popcorn is around 1,000 calories (that is, two Big Macs) and that's before you have them squirt on any extra butter. According to Donovan, "The butter-flavored sauce (there is no real butter in popcorn, it's all butter-flavored calories) has 240 calories per extra pump. We had a woman who was a regular and would order her bucket of popcorn (180 ounces) and then get us to add nine pumps of butter to it -- 2,160 calories. When she would come back for refills, she would drink the remaining butter from out of the bucket. I've never put extra butter on my popcorn since then."
"Hey, lady, would you like some popcorn with your butter?. Seriously, though, you should eat literally anything else."
And don't think you're getting clever ordering some hot, fresh food, because as Olga tells us, "We would also leave hot foods out on the grill all day so that we wouldn't have to toss them -- stuff like pretzels, hot dogs, etc., would sit there cooking for up to 12 hours because we put them out at the beginning of the morning shift. If I could give people one piece of advice, I would tell them to never order hot food at a movie theater."
And now you know what happened to that manager who angered Disney.
But the food is far from the most immediate danger in the building ...
Projection Bulbs Can Mess You The Fuck Up
When it comes to naming dangerous workplaces, a movie theater isn't going to be the first that comes to mind. But while slinging Twizzlers doesn't generally have you risking life and limb, projection bulbs need to be handled like they're the Ark of the Covenant. They're incredibly specialized pieces of equipment, and in theory you're never supposed to handle them with your bare skin because they can explode at the slightest provocation, like a bottle of freaking nitroglycerin. There are plenty of videos out there, if you're curious:
"Coming soon from Michael Bay ..."
At the theater Donovan worked at, they were supposed to suit up in a welder's mask and heavy-duty coat and gloves before changing a bulb. But you can guess how up to date a theater keeps its safety equipment, considering what we just told you about its razor-thin profit margins. Donovan had to work with rubber gloves, an old sports coat, and a dentist-style face shield, which is great for joining an eccentric warriors gang but not so much for protecting your precious face from glass shrapnel. If/when that thin glass explodes, any shrapnel that gets under your skin is too small to remove completely -- we're talking about tiny little needles of clear glass, often thinner than a hair. It just embeds itself into your skin, and then it will itch. And itch. And itch.
At Olga's theater, employees were technically required to take a safety course, but no one, including management, gave the tiniest sliver of a fuck. Her entire chain had no regulations to handle bulbs safely, and a few actually exploded during films. While that would certainly liven up a screening of Boyhood, you wouldn't want to deal with the clean-up and the angry customers.
"Wow, those falling glass shards look like they're coming right at us!"
Oh, and remember the anecdote earlier in which Disney wouldn't let them unlock the print of the movie until minutes prior to showtime? Well, the problem is that modern movies are shipped to theaters on hard drives, and sometimes those drives are corrupted or blank. Transferring a copy from another theater can take up to 10 hours. So even a non-Disney movie (which will arrive the day before the showing) might require someone to race across the state in the middle of the night to heroically bring Transformers 6: Something Of The Whatever to the masses. The result, as Donovan explained it, was that "Several times I had to break land-speed records driving to such exotic locales as Harland, Kentucky or Knoxville, Tennessee."
"But officer, the people have to know if Optimus Prime saves the Earth again!"
"Get behind me! I'll escort!"
There Are More Criminal Shenanigans Than You Think
Olga's theater was in an upscale neighborhood, but even it had its fair share of incidents. One teenager threatened to kill her because she wouldn't let him into an R-rated movie, the police arrested a Peeping Tom in the women's washroom, and there were multiple attempts to get in with counterfeit money or gift certificates. There was even some complex money-laundering scheme involving the rewards program.
Donovan's theater, on the other hand, had to deal with crowds that were a bit more ... unruly.
Lord help you whenever Nightmare Before Christmas gets re-released.
According to Donovan, the worst words in the theater world are "PG-13 horror movie." He once had to kick out an entire theater of 253 teenagers because of the chaos they were causing. Upset at missing out on the back half of 2011 Sundance darling The Roommate, they responded with threats and attempts to kick in the doors, forcing Donovan to shut down the theater and call the police.
Donovan actually had a book of local teens known for being criminals. That was a valuable resource, because if they were going to permanently ban someone they wanted to know what the odds of having a weapon pulled on them was -- some people get passionate when they're told to go elsewhere for their Sno-Caps and slasher flicks. And if you think the idea of someone pulling a gun over a refund dispute sounds insane, keep in mind that Donovan was working around the time of the shooting at the theater in Aurora, Colorado.
"Most managers started carrying a gun under their coat or at least had one in their office. It wasn't something the company was keen on, but when you are actually in the building ... you become aware of every gap in your security, and each person that comes in with a Joker T-shirt makes you nervous. I never carried, but I totally understood why so many people did."
Some would walk around carrying even more lethal options.
So he wasn't super thrilled when, just a week later, he had to deal with a bomb threat.
"It was up to me to be the first one through the doors because I would know what was out of place. Looking back, my salary was nowhere near high enough to do that. There weren't any bombs. The bomb threats were called in by a disgruntled janitorial company. Their contract had been terminated for poor work quality. I think that is when the workload and stress really started to take it out of me."
Yep, that'll do it.You can follow Olga on Twitter @runolgarun.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Ways The Gaming Industry Is Way More Sexist Than You Think and 5 Realities of Life When Your Brain Wants You to Murder.
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