Saturday night, in all it’s glamour and promise of fun, hides a terrible darkness. An onslaught of people so ordinary, that it is with great horror to see them merge into the swarm. Advancing near unstoppably toward you, tearing up everything in its path to leave the world barren in its wake (even Moses might have called it a little much). Saturday night, is when they usually put on the weekly blockbuster film for a meagre £2.50 at Film Unit, the student cinema in Sheffield. Open to not only students but the general public too, Saturday night’s showing is usually the busiest, and sometimes the least manned. We lost many brave Film Unit staff members in those days, when only the law of averages dictated who survived the nightly attacks. As a veteran of the cinematic wars, it is my duty to score into history the great battles that scarred our independent cinema business.
Film unit uses two types of projectors, old 35mm and digital. The older machine takes up half of the room, complete with cylinders to hold the film reels. At high speed, the reel is pushed in front of the bulb, and with so many moving parts it needs bolting to the floor. There is no rewind button. No chance to pause and quickly add some more adverts at the beginning. The entire thing must be played out to be started again. On top of this, film reel is delicate and prone to damage. A projectionist must cut out every frame in a reel that might severely distort the film, or even back it up. Oh and a fun fact; they’re often extremely flammable so one accident might not just stop the film in the middle of a showing, but also burn the building to the ground, killing all the customers in a hellish fiery death. Any survivors might demand their money back, so therefore extra care must be taken with this machine.
As such, communication between the manager and the projectionist is key, whenever something goes wrong. If the film has any issues and repairs are necessary, a projectionist can calmly tell the manager how long it will take and how severe it is, so that they in turn can apologise to the audience for any delays (or worse, send them home with their money back). For convenience, hand gestures are effective from the projection booth, as there’s a small window from which a projectionist can look down into the crowd. The sign language used to contact the manager is quite complex:
Thumb’s up – everything is ok. Stop worrying, it’s just warming up
Frown – not sure what’s up, but I’m on it
Beckoning hand – delay, come over so I can give you a time and some false hope
Panic dashing – Oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god, why did it sit my fat arse on the cylinder
Team America’s secret signal (wildly flailing arms) – I may have destroyed the one thing that makes our business possible…
Such was the case when I was a lowly ticket tearer, in my early career at Film Unit, when the screen remained firmly and stubbornly black. The manager at the time was too deep in conversation to notice the delay and hadn’t looked up at the projector window. If he had like I did, he would have seen the flailing arms and silent screaming face. I was able to dodge the stampede of customers as they shortly after rushed to the ticket gate to reclaim their money. Even behind his fortress of perspex, the fellow refunding tickets later suffered from post traumatic stress, and is now unable to see a ticket office without being crippled by irrational fear.
The weight of popularity
Almost everyone likes the film Inception. Sure, lots of its ideas were stolen from other films and Nolan has a weird thing about using all the same actors in every film of his (bad Nolan), but the film made money. But we at Film unit could hardly expect to fill every single seat. The film had already been out for weeks by the time we showed it. So at the weekly meeting, we agreed to take the initiative and contact the university clubs and societies to try and sell tickets in advance. One man took the job and proudly announced to us that he had sold as many as 50 tickets. Fifty seats already filled and guaranteed before the night itself. He remembered to tell us. He didn’t remember to tell the man in the perspex booth selling tickets on the actual night.
The cinema can seat up to 300 viewers, not including the turrets where the staff took positions. At 6.45 they started to arrive and we happily tore tickets and ushered them in, remembering to ask them to put any big bags or heavy luggage in the turrets (fire hazard you know. The projector is already an incendiary bomb). The manager happily watched the ticket stubs pile up and the fire officer happily did his job perfectly and the projectionist happily ran the adverts and trailers. At 7:00 they were still coming in strong, even stronger. I rushed over to help tear tickets and when that wasn’t enough so did the manager and even the projectionist. It was taking them longer to get into their seats by then, now that spaces were starting to vanish. At 7:15, the manager breaks away to find out why nobody is sitting down and sees the groups of friends who don’t want to separate into individual seats. I quickly count up the ticket stubs and warn him we’re rapidly approaching 300, but he smiles confidently at me and says “ah don’t worry Poncho. They know the limit on ticket sales. They won’t go above 300”. At 7:30, some squeezing and rearranging later, everyone is calmly fitted into the cinema. The fire officer inspects the mountain of baggage in the turrets and wondered if that in itself was now a fire hazard, but accepted the risk. The projectionist was ready to start the film, I’d taken my place in the turrets with the other staff.
And then there was a knock at the door. We open the door and find fifty customers that arrived last minute with pre-paid tickets, each hefting massive luggage. Heads were hung in despair and I offered to go help them get refunds. But the manager gives a hard look at their tickets, considers how much money the cinema will earn if they can only get them inside. So he lets them in, and gathers the rest of us. How will we fit another 50 people? Simple, he says, run to the far corners of the student union building. Every lecture room, every cafe, every study space. Take the chairs. All the chairs. Leave no chair behind. If there are no more seats, we shall make them.
So for the first time in my cinema experience, I performed what might be questioned as theft (borrowing), as we all rushed in and out to plant chairs anywhere we could. Down the steps between the aisles. In the turrets. Beside the fire escapes. In the doorways. The fire officer had a fit. All the rules are being overlooked and his protests ignored. The luggage piles are now building higher than our heads.
And then some more customers show up. The manager cries out how they could have bought more tickets when a limit ha been set in the ticket booth. One of the ushers guilty owns up and says he told him that we had more seats now to fit some more people. In panic, one of us runs past the oncoming customers to quell the tide, and stop the ticket sales. More chairs are needed, but theres no space for them. So we get stools instead, small enough to fit in between the chairs. Some viewers start perching on arm rests. Girlfriends on boyfriend’s laps. We line the seats until backs are up against the walls. It gets so packed even we can’t get inside. There’s only one sanctuary left, and it’s inside the projector room now baking hot from the machine. All 6 of us squeeze inside, with our heads side by side as we strain to watch out the projector window at the screen. Then the projectionist speaks:
“We can barely move in here. The audience can barely move either. How will I be able to repair the film if it stops?” the projectionist asks.
“How will we be able to get everyone out alive if there’s an accident with that highly flammable film reel and a fire starts?” the fire officer asks.
“How will we get out of this room alive if that fire starts?” I ask.
“Think of the money the business made tonight and just pray everyone” the manager says.
Six pairs of hands slapped together beside a roaring flammable machine.
Lead by the blind
A cinema projector bulb is very powerful. It’s far stronger than any lightbulb you’re likely to come across, as it gets hot enough to melt plastic (if you’ve ever seen that grainy pattern on the screen while watching an old film, then chances are it’s because the film reel melted). The reel is passed in front of the light at a high enough speed that it won’t be damaged but if held still, the light will destroy the frame. (For those of you, cough-Cece-cough, who get anxious about eyes, you might want to skip the following paragraph).
This wisdom was bestowed to me when I was a young and budding staff member at the cinema and I remembered this information when I trained to be a projectionist myself. There was another staff member who trained alongside me though who used this knowledge to a somewhat different degree. I used it to remember to be careful and not damage any film or the machine. He, looked down the projector lens directly into the lightbulb. The same lightbulb that, he was told, would melt plastic in less than seconds. One agonising scream later the rest of us look don him and try to work out why, oh why, would anyone think to do that. We’re still not entirely sure. He was training to be a manager that day and curiously struggled to do his job while having the use of only one eye. Particularly when it came to counting tickets, heads of viewers, spotting staff members that he needed to direct and so forth. Throw in a couple hundred paying customers and it made for an interesting evening. He remained blind in his second eye for as long as three hours until vision thankfully returned.
Viewers of all varieties
Your average viewer shows up with their ticket and finds their seat. They’re the ones you barely notice. Not quite as inconspicuous are the others.
First among them are the drinkers. They’re loud, brash and you have to be the one to potentially tell them that they can’t enter. Drunk people aren’t particularly reasonable, unless you’ve never encountered them. But it’s the sober ones who sneak in entire bottles of vodka under their jackets that are the hardest to spot (the U.K has a drinking problem, I’m sure).
Next up are the curious ones. I’ve been working carefully on a film projector, making sure the film, sound and adverts are all up and running when a second head appears next to mine. More bizarrely is the fact that I don’t know this person. The curious ones notice the sign Projector room and say to themselves, ‘hey you know what? Let’s skip the film and play around in there instead’
Then there are the groupies. People coming from a club or society to celebrate a specific event of one kind or another. This has included in the past, hipster clubbers (all it takes is a fake pair of glasses), knights in full suits of armour complete with medieval weaponry (the first time I’ve ever had to say to someone, I’m sorry sir but could you please leave your battle-axe in the turret. It’s a fire hazard…), and even crowds of mathematicians (because they all like films about maths. That’s an absolute fact you see).
To round off are the foreign students. Whenever a film is shown in a foreign language, they often take up half the cinema and as wonderful as that is, there are occasional moments of confusion. To give you an example, we showed the latest Ghibli film ‘Arriety’ and about a 100 Japanese students turned up. Cinema in Japan is a little different than in the UK. Audiences won’t leave their seats until the very last credit rolls away (it’s a sign of respect or unconsciousness). So it was a little peculiar for us when the film ended and a third of the audience refused to leave, and we can’t leave ourselves until they do. They sat in absolute silence throughout it too, and that’s not creepy.
There was no greater amount of chaos at a weekend for me than a busy night at the cinema. Facing the weekly perils of being crushed by the mob, operating highly flammable and intensely hot machinery, facing down knights, hipsters and all manner of other opponents. Working in a cinema – it’s a life threatening job.