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  • Guy van Egmond

Behind the Screens

Words by Guy van Egmond

Oh, the magic of the movie theatre. The latest cinematic art and entertainment on the silver screen; luxury seats and service, the widest array of confectionery and the greatest markup on a bag of chips known to mankind. I spent 5 years working at an adorable cinema in Matakana and it was one of the greatest first jobs any 14-year-old could hope for. Working a couple shifts a week, I built up my hours behind the counter, under seats and inside projectors. I climbed the ranks to be assistant manager by the time I left. But, as with any industry, work somewhere long enough and the illusions of rigour and quality fade, the cheeky shortcuts and blindspots become clear. I have no grievances with cinemas—I still go very regularly—but I do think it’s only fair to now offer a glimpse behind that silver screen. 

First order of business, I admit: cinema food is overpriced, often ridiculously so. But please grin and bear it. The problem doesn’t lie with the cinema; they’ve got wages and power and rent to pay. But that money sure doesn’t come from tickets. For a big blockbuster like Barbie or Oppenheimer, the faceless money-hungry studios demand more than half of ticket sales in the opening weeks—and continue to carve out their chunk of profit throughout the film's release. The films make piss-all profit themselves, but they’re incredible people-magnets: cinemas are basically candy-shops that happen to have a couple projectors going in the back. How else could people be tempted to buy an ice-cream, drink and a bag of chips for $18? 

In all honesty, I wouldn’t want to pay that much either. So I could never get too mad when people ran to the Four Square for a Party Mix and a Coke. If I didn’t catch you? Fair play, enjoy. Just take your rubbish out with you! There is no bigger middle finger to some poor kid on minimum-wage than an empty can of Pringles on the floor, the last chips ground to dust in the carpet. You and I both know they didn’t sell those, so you can save them the extra work too. But the lolly-smuggler’s litter is nothing in comparison to what else could be found after screenings. The lost property was always stacked with sunglasses (easy to lose), credit cards (unfortunate), shoes (how didn’t you notice?!), car keys (how did you get home!?!). And what the rubbish bin got was even worse. One coworker’s favourite story was the used tampon he’d found on the floor… 

We’d find these things while cleaning the theatres, but don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s sanitary. If you’re after the cleanest seat, bring it from home. We’d get hundreds of people through a single space each day, and the credits didn’t last nearly long enough to do a thorough job. The most you could hope for is a sweep of the crumbs and a wipe of the tabletop. To be fair, that’s all that most seats needed after a session. Every so often, some inept child would spill half an ice cream over the armrest, but that’s nothing a bit of fabric cleaner and a wet cloth couldn’t fix. However, any seasoned employee would know which seats never to choose: the one sat in by the lady who had some bad chicken from the restaurant downstairs; the one sat in by the 4-year old and their apple juice who didn’t need to “go bathroom” before the film. Those seats are beyond cleaning. Those seats should be burned. 

Or at least deeply sanitised. Which does happen, I promise you. Besides Christmas, there were one or two days a year where we’d close up shop for the whole day. A battalion of us youths tempted by extra pay—and our 32-year-old manager who didn’t get a choice—would march through each theatre. The forward ranks with brushes and dustpans, spray bottles and cloths; behind them followed the vacuum and the steam cleaner, heavy artillery of this battlefield. The months of dust and crumbs never stood a chance. Buckets worth of stale popcorn, gum, bottle caps, dollar coins were pried out from between the seats. Mysterious stains were erased from existence, the pattern of the carpet rediscovered. It was always a hard day’s work, but satisfying. And afterwards, we’d go buy waffles with all the loose change we found. 

But we weren’t a troupe of hired cleaners. The majority of our work instead required smiles and saintly patience, and an arsenal of ‘mm’s and ‘mhm’s. There’s an art to managing customers, skills which were very often put to the test. That black marble countertop saw some of the most ignorant, self-important and indecisive people Matakana had to offer; like the Almond Milk Lady, who tried to use an expired student ID every time and would  complain that her order of ‘scalding almond milk’ was both too expensive and not hot enough. 

Working the box office was the greatest hands-on crash-course; I learnt volumes about rhetoric and improvisation. After 8 hours of dusting and cleaning, it was rare that I'd want to spend another 2 hours in those very same seats. Which meant I very often hadn’t seen every single film we had screening at that moment. But with clues picked up from the poster and reviews, I could pitch just about any film to any guest. I once sold a man a ticket to Paw Patrol: The Movie at 10:15 in the morning. Although, I don’t know if I can claim much credit there, he just needed to kill an hour. 

Then there were the moments that called for feigned shock and horror. Those chips you just bought were a week past their best-before? “Oh jeez, I had no idea, I’m so sorry.” Damn, we were hoping no one would notice. Like restaurants reusing the table bread and butter, cinemas are masters at making stock last. The best-before date is a loose guideline at best, and not legally binding. Besides, the chips tasted fine! I would know, I ‘checked’ an entire bag of them in my break. Slightly more criminal was when my manager gave me a box of colas dated to three weeks ago. I spent half an hour in the back with meths and a cloth, rubbing the best-before dates off bottle necks. 

Infuriatingly, the times they never believed me were when I spoke with full honesty. The post-credits scene is a fun little gimmick and it gets people to sit through the credits. But certain unnamed franchises such as Marvel have pavloved audiences into expecting a reward at the end of every film, which very often is not the case. There were countless times that I’d be forced to sit in the theatre, listening to credits music that I’d heard three times already that day, because two diehards wouldn’t take my word for it. No, there’s no teaser for Elvis 2, go home! 

The cinema certainly has its quirks, some more off-putting than others. But that’s the case with almost any industry: restaurants, hotels. I’m sure builders cut corners, and even a surgeon must forget to sanitise on occasion. We humans are inherently gross and lazy creatures. So please, don’t let me put you off the movie experience. It’s a wonderful way to spend a couple hours and a couple dollars. Take the upgrade on the popcorn and the chocolate-dipped icecream. Enjoy! Settle into your seat and try not to think about how many others sat there before, or why the attendant chuckled when you picked your seat, or what that weirdly sour smell is…


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