‘I quit because I knew Endgame was coming’
For many young people across the UK, working at a local cinema is a way of combining their job and their passion. It’s a way of being paid to be surrounded by and immersed in the world of film; sell popcorn in the day, see the latest releases for free at night (the dream). But for many, that dream quicky sours.
The experience of going to enormous multiplex cinema chains such as Cineworld, VUE, and the Odeon is designed to be magical for customers, a means of escapism. For the employees, however, overwork, stress and poor conditions are a hard reality. So much so for one “leading” UK cinema worker, Thomas Broome-Jones, that he ended up collapsing on the job “due to a combination of extreme stress and fatigue”. He posted in a Twitter thread on Sunday that the demand for Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Endgame – which has just had a record-breaking opening weekend – was so great that he had to “push” his body “through physical torment” in order to perform his job properly.
“Today, I was expected to clean up after 300 people in 10 minutes, alone,” he says in his thread, “this is not physically possible. I have a history of mental illness and suffered a nervous breakdown seven years ago. Had I continued in my current role at my place of employment, I have to imagine another one wouldn't have been far off.” Thomas chose to share his experience because he was sick of being driven to breaking point by the demands of the job. “I figured it had to be aired on a public forum if it meant cinema employees getting the respect they deserve”, he tells Dazed. “Hours need to be distributed far more effectively and the health of staff needs to be taken into consideration. When it gets to the point that people are collapsing and crying their eyes out, something has gone seriously wrong”.
“Managers would come down to your screen and watch you clean up while timing it, without helping you”
Hannah worked at a major UK cinema chain while she was a student for four years across three different branches in Leeds, Sheffield, and London. Her love for film is what kept her going – the average staff turnover was just a few months. That, and the constant worry that if you didn’t put up with the working conditions, someone else would and you’d lose your job.
Hannah details that in the Sheffield cinema, she wasn’t allowed to carry a bottle of water during shifts, which involved “clearing a screen of 400 people in 10 minutes” several times a day, during which she would be expected to clean up used condoms, fluorescent baby vomit, crushed popcorn, and any number of horrific human debris, all with nothing more than a few paper towels and a plastic bin bag. “If we wanted a drink we had to go to the kitchen area, they would tell us to clock out before going to the kitchen to have a drink of water. You’d have to clock out using a machine on the first floor, then go to the ground floor to get a drink of water, go back upstairs, and clock back in again.”
To top it off, during blockbuster releases Hannah and her colleagues would be timed on how quickly they could clean between screenings in an attempt to meet managerial targets, a task resulting in several bursting bin bags piling up that were so heavy she struggled to carry them on her own. “Managers would come down to your screen and watch you clean up while timing it, without helping you”. The awards that these managers promised for hitting targets never materialised.
This surveillence culture seems to be pervasive throughout the industry; another cinema worker tells Dazed of the constant monitoring by her managers at a Brighton branch of the Odeon, right on the seafront. She reveals how they would display a ranking of each individual worker on the staffroom wall, based on feedback cards they were told to hand out after customer interactions. “It’s like, you’re paying me minimum wage, are you serious?” she tells Dazed, “It was quite dystopian. The card had your name on it and they would be giving feedback on you specifically. There was so much pressure to be on and really friendly.”
“I think everyone at one point was in tears”, says Hannah, “There was a lot of going on. Having a cry in storerooms, we just thought that was normal. We were 19, we thought that was what it was like being an adult having a job.” Conditions are so stressful that people, understandably, tend to leave before big releases to spare themselves the emotional and physical labour. Those that are left behind face the busiest days understaffed.
“I quit because I knew Endgame was coming” says Amber (not her real name) who used to work at a high-end cinema in Bath, which offers food and drink service in the screenings. The cinema opened to coincide with the release of the Mary Poppins remake; cue an unruly amount of kids, popcorn, milkshakes, and pizza. “People were coming in with birthday and bachelor parties. Cleaning was extra difficult because we had these fancy mezze cocktails that would just get everywhere. It would get disgustingly sticky on these velvet cinema seats”. Conditions have improved slightly Amber says – she still has friends who work there – but this week in particular “has been hell”.
Jess (not her real name) is a student working at a London Odeon – one of the company’s major outlets – and was on shift this weekend for the Endgame release. Jess found herself with around 20 new staff members for the release, who had received little to no prior training, and were about to given a baptism of fire. The cinema’s mammoth 800-seater theatre causes havoc between screenings, as punters both leaving and arriving swarm the foyer.
“I’ve worked at Topshop, which was awful, but there was more focus on employees’ wellbeing there than at this cinema”
After Endgame screenings, staff were asked to hand out toys to ticket holders as they left: “I had 40 people crowding around me, I was like ‘please back off’. I felt suffocated and I was being backed into a corner. I just had to keep going, I was handing these toys out for half an hour.” One lady grabbed the lanyard Jess was wearing and shouted at her because she didn’t have an Iron Man toy. “I grabbed my nearest colleague and asked them if they could take over.”
It’s clear that the mental and physical wellbeing of employees at these cinemas is being jeopardised to maximise the amount of screenings held in a single day. Enormous chains are driving for profit increases at the expense of young and inexperienced people, who are often passionate about film, working for minimum wage. Hannah, who has had mental health problems since she was a teenager, told Dazed: “I never thought something I considered as a dream job would be so depressing. I’ve worked at Topshop which was awful, but there was more focus on employees’ wellbeing there than at this cinema, definitely”.
Dazed contacted some of the major UK cinema chains mentioned for comment, but has received no response as of yet.
“The sad thing is,” says Amber, “I really love films, but working in a cinema has made me not really want to go to the cinema anymore. The last thing I want to do now is go in and watch films.”