Every movie buff should work in a cinema at least once. Here’s why.

Working in a cinema

When I was in university, I used to work part-time in a cinema. And I *loved* it, like I’ve never loved any other experience before, or ever since.

It started out as a summer job before I started my second year of university, and then became an enjoyable activity that I did after school/on weekends/whenever I was free — which I just happened to be paid for — until I left for an exchange programme abroad in the second semester of my third year. Since it was the three-month summer break, and I had nothing better to do, I thought “Why not?” — not really expecting my job application to be successful, since it wasn’t when I applied a year ago. Back then, I thought it was because they didn’t need staffers. It was only later I found out that they *always* welcome new recruits, because the industry has a high turnover rate, but my “privileged” schooling coupled with zero work experience made me seem ill-fitted for the job. My second application was only successful because I had since acquired six months of experience waitressing at a cafe.

From the hiring manager’s point of view, it made sense *not* to hire me the first time round. I believe many of my former schoolmates in my admittedly “elite” high school and junior college would have shied away from the job, once they found out it was not all fun and games and watching movies for free. Parts of it — scratch that, *most* of it — was menial work. Preparing food, carrying buckets of ice, carrying food supplies, carrying trash bags, washing up the candy bar area at the end of the night, picking up trash after every show, making sure the toilets were clean… you get the idea. And I was earning a pittance of $4/h, which is, really, just pitiful.

But it was made 10,000 times more fun with the lovely bunch of colleagues I had — who all became friends, many of whom I still keep in touch with today — and who were part of the reason I stayed as long as I did. And I am never one to look down on menial work, especially when I’m doing something I love.

And I did love it, very much, being a movie buff — which was the only reason why I applied in the first place. It’s not just the idea of being able to watch free movies that enticed me (though that was a very appealing factor.) It’s kind of like people who love to read working in a bookshop, or people who love pets working in a pet shop. If you’re doing your job properly, you probably won’t be reading or playing with animals as much as you like, on the job — but you will be surrounding yourself in an atmosphere where your hobbies are given reverence.

That’s what working in a cinema was for me: being surrounded in the hallowed atmosphere of “going to the movies” — where anticipation hums in the air as people eagerly wait to see what new worlds they will be brought to in the next few hours, and then is released in a cathartic burst when the credits start rolling, as they turn to their friends and immediately start nattering about their feelings. Posters adorn the walls, heralding the arrival of movies that I never not wanted to watch, and you can hear the muted sounds of blockbusters blasting away at particularly loud segments when walking along the corridors. In the time I spent there, every inch of the cinema became as familiar as home.

When we worked “floor” (tearing ticket stubs and ushering patrons), one of our duties was to go into each theatre every half-hour to check for problems during the screenings, or if anyone was illegally recording the movie. I used to pick timings when my favourite parts of the movie (if I had any) were showing to go in to do my checks. And I wouldn’t touch horror movies with a ten-foot pole, so I always made my colleagues go into the theatres that were playing those instead.

At the end of each movie, at least one of us had to go into the theatre with a trash bag and direct patrons to the correct exit (we called it “run show”), and then pick up all the rubbish left behind by people who found it too much of an effort to throw their own rubbish. I would choose the movies which had endings I liked, so I could watch them over and over again. (During The Dark Knight‘s run, for all the days that I worked floor, I ran the shows for almost all of them, because I loved the ending so much. And if I had still been working when Inception was showing, I would definitely have ran the shows for every single screening.)

So many other fond memories of the place I left behind.

There was the elderly, slightly addled Indian uncle who would hang around the cinema all day and watch a movie almost everyday. (Luckily for him, senior citizen tickets were only $4 a piece, but still, expensive habit.) For quite a long period of time, whenever my colleagues saw him coming, they would always mimic his drawling way of saying “Iron Man” (not to his face of course), because apparently, when Iron Man was showing, he watched it *everyday*.

There was me being afraid of going near the “popper” once the popcorn started popping, because it was scalding hot (but we had to be quick to empty the popcorn once the sounds had nearly stopped, or the popcorn would be burnt). It took me a few days when I just started working at the candy bar in order to overcome that fear, and then I was doing it like a pro. And there was cleaning it, which is the most tedious job in the entire candy bar during the closing shift, especially for the sweet popcorn machine, because it needed lots of strength and time to be scrubbed clean.

Thankfully, the guys on duty would always take on that task, so I probably had to clean it only two or three times in the entire one-and-a half years I was there.

Business was particularly good (or bad, depending on whether you asked the cinema owners or us) during peak periods like weekends, holidays, and blockbuster season, but they usually turned out to be the most fun times too. I did not truly bond with my colleagues until one month into the job, when Kungfu Panda came out. It was full house ALL DAY from the moment we opened at 10am, because it was the holidays, and many parents liked to bring their young children out in the mornings. (Usually, not many people watch the first shows at 11am. They start coming only after noon.) And children being children — which somehow extended to their parents too — the theatres were always in the dirtiest mess after every show; it looked like they all got into a food fight during the movie. During those times, it’s absolutely a team effort to get everything cleaned up (and the box office and candy bar lines cleared as quickly as possible) before we had to open the theatre for the next screening, and we joked and laughed and played while battling the never-ending crowds, till we emerged from each madness much closer than before.

And there was the much-enjoyed privilege of watching all the movies we wanted for free, as long as we worked enough days of the week. (Back then they still allowed it. I’m not sure about now.) And boy, did I watch all the movies that I wanted — often with my colleagues — and even those I wasn’t all that interested in — just because it was free, and I could. On occasion, we would work full 9-hour shifts, and then stay on for another four to six hours to watch two or three movies back-to-back, and then go home after midnight with our colleagues who were working the closing shifts. In addition, we would often go for supper with our cinema managers after our closing shifts had ended, even if some of us had to report to work for the opening shift the next morning, because that was how much we enjoyed each other’s company.

There were disheartening days of course, when you have unpleasant customers who feel that just because they bought/are going to buy an $8 movie ticket, they own the place. There was a particularly busy and horrible night that stands out in my memory, but I shall not elaborate further than to say: when you’re watching a movie during peak season, don’t come to the cinema just a few minutes before your movie starts and expect that you’ll be served immediately. Even if you have made an online booking. Priority queue or not, if everyone queues in it, and it stretches as long as the normal queue, there is *no freaking hell way* I will be able to serve you before your movie starts, as much as I would like to. And I will rather refund you your money than let you watch your movie if you cut the queue and DEMAND to be served first because your movie has already started. Because how is it my fault you decided to come five minutes before it starts?! At times like this, even coming 15 minutes earlier isn’t enough.

But these incidents were rare, and we always cheered each other up, or laughed off the truly ridiculous patrons, and our managers would defend us to the best of their ability. To date, it is still my fondest working experience, and one where I can truly say I *loved* my job. (Yes, even more than being a magazine writer, which gave me travel opportunities and free stays at five-star resorts.) In fact, I’m pretty sure that my experience here can only be topped if I worked in the film industry itself, going on set and watching amazing films being made in front of me. (Or as a film journalist, getting to watch my favourite movies first at press junkets, and then interviewing the stars afterwards. I’m really not picky.)

My point is, when you love what you’re doing, and who you’re doing it with, and your perks are your actual hobby, your job satisfaction can’t help but be through the roof. (Though it can still be improved by being paid more than $4/h.) If it weren’t for the fact that there are no career prospects in being a cinema service crew member, I would have gone back into it after I graduated.

I hope I will one day find a job I love as much as this again.