Confessions of a cinema usher

A few words from someone who spent time as a cinema usher, and survived - somehow - to tell the tale...

This article contains spoilers for Children Of Men.

I used to work at a small independent cinema, tearing tickets and hoovering up popcorn between showings. The building used to be a theatre, and had three screens. The main one was on the old theatre stage, the others were small 100-seater rooms which led some patrons to announce “Father’s telly is bigger than this.”

The first lesson here is this: yes, we are judging you.

The public are awful, and deserve to be judged. Well, some. Not all.

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Technically speaking most of the public are actually fine, and you barely notice them as a result. Thousands of people went to the cinema, enjoyed the film, and respected the rest of the audience and the staff. It’s just that the irritating ones who are memorable, and this leaves you with the sense that people are terrible and maybe we’ve had our time as a species (see also: Twitter).

So I don’t remember the faceless pleasant, I remember the vomiting ones, the drunk arguers, and the food fights. I wasn’t there for the teenage rap battles during 8 Mile, but I was there for a sell-out Spider-Man 3 audience spontaneously deciding that if they couldn’t enjoy this film as a drama, they could at least enjoy it as an accidental comedy.

Equally, I remember giving the people on the counter a long and perhaps overly detailed description of Pan’s Labyrinth which they stopped listening to after the opening four words. This meant they told a lot of customers that it was a fairy tale, and those customers were not expecting that scene with the bottle.

The second lesson here is this: everyone working at the cinema is a member of the public who are, let us not forget, awful and deserve to be judged.

Do we know what we’re doing? In a way. Let me demonstrate.

First of all, Franco asked me to get him the cardboard tube from some toilet roll.

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I should mention that he wasn’t really called Franco. I’m just trying to make the staff and the cinema I worked at slightly more anonymous. (His six identical Swiss Army Knives were called General Franco though. He also named a machete after me, but we didn’t really talk about that.)

Secondly, Franco explained to me that the projector was broken and that I needed to hold the film gate open so he could prop it open with the cardboard tube that I’d just taken from a bin in the toilets. Otherwise the gate would snap shut and our copy of Juno would be “absolutely fucking fucked”.

For the rest of the article, just assume that Franco is swearing a lot. It’ll save time.

The cardboard tube was inserted. I let go of the gate, and to our relief the cardboard held firm. We could let the audience watch their film in peace, unaware of the drama that had unfolded in the projection booth. I sat at the back of the screen towards the end of the film, just in case anything else happened. It was at this point that I heard Franco explain to the evening shift staff what had happened. His voice was audible enough to turn heads in the back row, as was my colleague’s as he asked “Is that not a bit dangerous?”

“Is it fuck,” said Franco, “Anyway, the fire exit’s there.” I’m told he then strolled away humming a show tune.

The projection booth for this screen was basically a cupboard, by the way. There was a wee box you could stand on where you weren’t really in the way of any moving parts, but otherwise it was like an automatic lock-in on The Crystal Maze. When you turned the projector off at the end of a film, you had to manually slow it down by placing your hands on the whirring reels and hope it didn’t burn your skin too much. This was done so a tendril of film wouldn’t go flapping around and get damaged. The main screen, though, had a huge projection room, and was the first to get a digital projector. Now all the screens have one, meaning fewer projectionists are needed and a lot of the manual work of two-reel projectors is gone.

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Franco was right, though, the fire exit was in the far corner away from the projection booth. I’m 100% confident that if a fire broke out everyone in that screen would have survived. Plus, the film gate did not snap shut, so technically we saved the day in time to find a less flammable insert (with some disruption to the audience). Did we know what we were doing? In a way, yes.

When the projectionist came downstairs and said “Andrew, who’s the old guy in the Bourne films?” so I would say “Uh, Brian Cox?” and then turn round and see Brian Cox hand me his ticket for Mamma Mia… the projectionist knew exactly what he was doing.

Working in a cinema is an amazing job if you’re into people watching – you get to see the full range of human emotions, but not quite in the way that the Cineworld Unlimited ad suggests. You’ve never seen adoration in its purest form until you’ve seen a 6 year old overcome with anticipation, jumping to his feet and yelling “BATMAAAAAAN” at the start of The Dark Knight. I was there, man, on the opening nights of Sex And The City (another usher opened the door to the screen and was immediately swept away by a sea of people) and Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull – the aftermath of which was reminiscent of that bit in Children Of Men after Clive Owen sees Michael Caine get shot.

You’ve also probably never seen the version of Charlie Wilson’s War where the reels get spliced together in the wrong order. Few people have, as it was a one night only deal. It would have been on for longer, but someone in the audience had seen it already and let the cinema staff know. No one else said anything, and at least four people left the cinema talking in glowing terms about the non-linear narrative.

All this took place a decade ago, and the cinema has changed since then. Digital projection and touch screen box offices mean fewer employees are needed, but you still need ushers to tear tickets and tidy up the screens afterwards. Popcorn is a big deal for cinemas. The profit margins on it are good, it’s where they make a significant amount of their money. One thing it isn’t, though, is sand. Despite this seemingly self-evident fact, there’s some innate human desire to turn tubs of it upside down to see if the popcorn will maintain the shape of its container. I appreciate the spirit of scientific curiosity, probably, but if you only have ten minutes to clean up then the spirit of scientific curiosity can fuck off. Popcorn is at least easier to deal with than chewing gum, of which huge purple Lovecraftian clumps form on the carpet, left by cults of ostensibly bored teenagers who had not been demonstrably enthused by The Grudge 2.

What was as true then as it is now is that cinemas could be much better places to visit if they didn’t rely on the minimum number of staff needed to operate (and sometimes less). Financial pressure is definitely an issue, but occasionally it felt like (and looks like, going to the cinema today) one more member of staff would be a huge help. Queues would be shorter, pressure on staff would be decreased, the overall experience would be improved, famous Scottish character actors might not be reduced to their role in a popular action franchise.

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If Brian Cox is reading this I’d like to apologise, but also to congratulate him on having such a broad-brimmed hat.