I work in the movies, actually

DRESSED TO SERVE Cinema ushers enjoy some of the more stylish uniforms ever created.

A Writer’s next day job.

Day jobs come and go. If they’re good, they’re well paid, they don’t take up too much time, and don’t leave you feeling like you’ve reached the pinnacle of your employability. If they’re not good, they place heavy demands on all your time for little return, leaving no space for creativity, and you end up disappearing into career no-mans’ land until you resign.

After leaving full-time employment in The Corporates behind me, hoping that I’d become a much-sought-after freelancer, I landed back in London after a trip across the Continent without any source of income and a round of rejection letters, with that pesky rent still to pay, so I needed a day job.

I’d moved south of the Thames to Greenwich. Like Stratford-upon-Avon, this famous quarter of the city keeps its best face on for tourists, which made it an enjoyable, up-beat place to live.

Houses were affordable, particularly if you shared one, and the parklands between the river and the heights of Blackheath were a great escape from the rat-race.

I still felt hopeful that somehow writing and freelancing would see me break into the production industry, so while I kept trying that on all fronts, I approached the small cinema where I’d seen The Piano and Jurassic Park the year before.

The pay was pretty dismal, and the promise of shifts was not great, but they wanted someone to start straight away. As soon as I’d been allocated my two hot pink polo shirts, a striped green apron (for manning the pick-and-mix stands) and a cap, I was ready to fill the shoes of fully fledged cinema usher.

First Clue – if you wear a weird, brightly coloured uniform, it’s a day job.

Cue the movies! I can recall them all, since I saw them multiple times, from forgettable flops like The Colour of Night, to the excellent The Madness of King George. Seated on the small flip-down seats at the rear of the auditorium I took-in the films of the next twelve months in greater detail than I ever thought possible.

The flip-side of all that free entertainment was having to make countless sacks of popcorn and up-selling terrible hot dogs, before cleaning the cinema’s ‘kitchen’ after every shift. But in return for all the free new-release movies I could possibly take in (and the free popcorn), it was a pretty fair deal.

Second Clue – if you have to weigh-up the pay against the free food, it’s a day job.

After about a fortnight of all the free popcorn I could eat, I didn’t feel like eating any more. As the new guy I went through all the usual wariness from colleagues. For a few days there was the potential to be branded a racist because I refused to pick up the slack for one woman who decided that I had to keep doing the crap work because I was new. The big guns were pulled-out in the form of the largest, scariest guy on staff, who confronted me in the locker room, sizing me up to see if I was indeed the ‘nazi’ I’d been described as.

ALL YOU CAN EAT Until you can’t eat anymore. Popcorn, the great cinematic profit margin.

I think my smile disarmed him. I’ve been tall since I was fifteen, and that helped, but when he realised I refused to compensate for all lazy people no matter what their colour or creed, we were on the same page, in fact I scored plenty of respect.

Third Clue – if you get confronted by a big guy and management doesn’t care, it’s a day job.

Whatever the day job, I have found that what makes all the difference is having fun colleagues to while-away the long, underpaid hours with.

At this cinema we very often staged the Ushers’ Olympics, which involved staircase time trials. I was well-placed in this having legs long enough to leap whole flights.

There was a long-term challenge which involved getting customers to enter the ground floor cinema by first walking to the top floor, and then catching the lift down to the floor where they started, without realizing they were back where they showed their tickets. As far as I know I was the only usher to win that particular challenge, and it took all the guts I could muster as an actor to pull-off. The weird part was that my winning couple were not phased by seeing another whole street outside when they emerged from the lift, which was ostensibly ‘underground’ given the way they ended up getting there.

The funniest thing I ever saw was a random Sunday afternoon challenge, in which I dared one colleague to wave to a customer from within the popcorn bin, the large ones with the glass front slightly below eye-level, through which customers can salivate over their buttered or sugared popcorn choices.

Except on this occasion, Leo greeted them, lying on his side waving through the glass, in a priceless, puerile moment cooked-up by two bored creatives. I was so amused and in awe of Leo’s bravado that I really don’t remember the customers’ reaction!

Fourth Clue – if you’ve got time to muck around, it’s a day job.

Seeing audiences come and go throughout major movie seasons was an eye-opener about which ones really strike a chord with their audience. This was the dawn of the ‘opening weekend’ era, and countless big budget titles came and went with great expectations, often very fast.

MY WATERLOO Seeing films over and over is a great way to understand how they’re put together (Photo: Robert McFarlane).

Other films became perennial favourites with crowds, who poured-in week after week, and had extended lives in the smaller screen of the three at this cinema. Muriel’s Wedding, The Lion King, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle – these were all titles which had long runs on the big screen in Greenwich.

Watching movies relentlessly is a great way to see how scenes are constructed, and you end-up seeing all the errors that one viewing won’t reveal – continuity mistakes, actors looking for their marks, and microphone booms in shot. All the grave no-no’s of film school fifty feet high on the ‘professional’ screen. It can be a validating experience for an emerging filmmaker.

Fifth Clue – sometimes a day job can teach you something about your profession.

Quite often, while cleaning the kitchen or sweeping popcorn, one of us would say out loud: “Don’t worry guys, at least we can say we work in the movies!”, and we’d all laugh, forgetting for a moment how far we were from the other side of the silver screen.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

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