This is a Writers’ Other Jobs post from Niki Aken
A few years after I quit my uni job as a cinema manager and projectionist, I ran into Sarah, another manager/projectionist slashie I used to work with. She was now working in customer service for a major airline. Sarah said that these days when shit hit the fan at work – say the weather’s turned and she’s struggling to book two hundred hotel rooms for two hundred angry customers, she thinks to herself, “What I wouldn’t give for a cruisey projection shift.” I knew what she meant; those perfect shifts where there was just enough work to keep you sane in a cold room full of beeping machinery without human company for six hours, but not so much that you went home with a resignation letter composed.
I’m as fond of putting my feet up as the next projectionist, but it’s definitely the hectic times I look back on with the most nostalgia. Tucked away in the manager’s office counting up tills or balancing the safe, I’d never knew what was coming after that ominous 2-way radio call, “Hello, Management?” Maybe it was a customer who wanted to argue their way to using an expired voucher, or, quite reasonably, a punter with beef over the price of a popcorn and coke. Every so often a fight broke out in the foyer and we needed security. For some reason cinema foyers are popular meeting spots for teens with testosterone to burn and a score to settle – although picking a carpeted location reveals a touch of self-preservation behind the outward aggression. Sometimes I’d get a call because some noisy kids had been given two warnings from the ushers, and it was up to me as boss-lady to boot them out.
Roofs leak. Hearts attack. Waters break. Yes, a lady actually gave birth in the foyer one night. I wasn’t on shift, but the quick-thinking and resourceful manager on duty arranged cardboard promotional standees for Kill Bill and 2 Fast 2 Furious around her for privacy, as well as queue ropes to funnel patrons out of the complex well away from where she laid groaning. I never thought to ask what movie it was that induced her labour.
Before I became a projectionist and manager I started out at the bottom of the chain – candy bar, floor and box office. From day one I was an enthusiastic worker. I couldn’t understand why some of my colleagues whined like they had a shit job – you’re a facilitator of fun! Okay, having to constantly suggest “a choc top with that” can get a little draining, but it’s amazing how smoothly those prompts go over when coupled with a sneaky grin. My favourite shifts were box office, though I got rostered on box the least. Apparently I was wasted there due to my high ‘average sale’ at the candy-bar. I was a fast ticket seller and took secret pride watching my line burn through faster than my co-workers’. One of the perks of box-office was when customers wanted help choosing what to see and it was quiet enough to offer them meaty advice. Staff got to see movies for $2 a pop ($0 when you were a manager) so we had an opinion on them all. Unsurprisingly there’s a high ratio of wannabe filmmakers working at the cinema, so the customer often scored a round of pre-show entertainment courtesy of two teens in garish uniforms arguing over The Pianist versus My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It was pretty sweet getting paid to chat movies with strangers. It was just like Clerks but with less roof hockey.
The cinema, like the beach, is a place that attracts people from all walks of life. You might think with ticket prices being so expensive that going to the cinema is a pastime reserved for people with coin. But it’s not the theatre and it’s certainly not the ballet. If I worked day shifts I had mums-and-bubs sessions, seniors, uni students and people with disabilities. Weekends were always family and teenager dominated. ‘Tight arse Tuesday’ was our busiest night, and the cross-section of humans wanting to scrimp a little is broader than you might think. In a busy shift I’d see hundreds of different customers and all kinds of dynamics. The couple on their first date. The teenagers embarrassed to be seen in public with their folks. The well-heeled groups half-cut from a boozy dinner. The tight circle of friends who bonded over film and their raging debates over the movie after it finished. The partners who’d fought on the way to the cinema and were flirting with the staff as revenge. The would-be film critics. The actual film critics. I’ll let you guess which of the two were more punishing on us.
Some of the staff devised games to make their shifts more interesting. They’d dare one another to work an obscure word or phrase into an exchange with a customer, like ‘pocket rocket’ or ‘chestnut’. Maybe these kids rated me as too straighty-one-eighty (fine, I was!), because I wasn’t included in these capers. But the truth is, I didn’t need them to make my shifts fly by. I found the customers and their behaviour interesting enough. Positive human interaction with strangers is so incredibly underrated. Even if there were lines out the doors of the complex and we had no time to chat about what movie they were seeing, I could feel the gratitude radiating from a customer who’d been served efficiently and politely.
Are you waiting for the bit where I say I wrote scraps of a novel or screenplay during my downtime at work? Well, that didn’t happen. I did make a short film about a projectionist, but that was years later. Despite the fact I don’t have any tangible writing to show for my years of cinema servitude, I look back on it as an apprenticeship in human behaviour. As well as a pretty good job to see me through university. I’m a working writer now, and some days the only person I speak to besides my partner is the barista at my local café. And when I’m feeling that weighty deficit of human interaction, I sometimes think to myself, “What I wouldn’t give for a cruisey box office shift.”
If you’re a keen theatre-goer, film addict and writer, next week’s Writers Bloc Social might be for you! We’ll be focusing on screenwriters, directors, and playwrights, and we’d love to see you there.