Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released last weekend to sold-out crowds across the country. This required movie theater workers to survive what might be one of the most trying moments of their career. In the following essay, the manager of a Midwestern movie theater recounts his opening weekend experiences. To protect his job, he has asked to remain anonymous.
I’ve worked at a major theater chain as a manager for the last 4 years. In that time, I’ve seen some pretty strange stuff: a projectionist walking off during the middle of a shift and leaving the building to reel 20 screens of 35mm film, a damaged drive forcing film critics to wait 2 hours, and the cinematic classic known as Oogieloves: The Big Balloon Adventure.
But I’ve never dreaded coming into work like I did for the Star Wars:The Force Awakens opening last week.
The first challenge was staffing the opening weekend, with no certainty about how many people we’d need to handle the rush. Though we did have the record-breaking ticket presales to guide us, we kept in mind that the disappointing Ultron also set presale records. No one even knew ifThe Force Awakens was any good, and it wouldn’t premiere until four days before its wide-release. That was six days after we had to schedule our staff for the opening.
Theaters across the country also had to trust that Star Wars presales would guarantee the longevity of crowds. Sure, the 7 p.m. shows were sold out, but would it be wise to stay open until 12 a.m., 1 a.m., or run 24 hours like inner-city theaters?
After the tragedy of Aurora, studios and theaters agreed to move premier events to regular business hours on Thursday for security, something which was stressed to the utmost importance on Star Wars night. As a result of the security measures, most Thursday 7 p.m. premieres don’t feel very special. They’re just like regular shows, and barely attended outside of a few tentpole titles.
But Star Wars was different. It felt like the population of a small town migrated into the lobby of the theater I manage for the movie on Thursday night. This was great timing, since most of my young staff were stuck in exams, concerts and prior commitments. (Apparently, the only people in town who couldn’t be at the movies that night were theater staff.)
“The frozen drinks machine kept breaking and the oil line for one of our two popcorn kettles burst open.”
In a single moment at 7 p.m., we had to process more people than we normally do on an entire Friday night of business. These are the moments you learn that hell is real, and we are living in it. The huge crowd stressed the power supply to the point that the frozen drinks machine kept breaking and the oil line for one of our two popcorn kettles burst open, knocking it out of commission. In a situation like this, I could have 50 staff and it would not make a difference.
The worst part about these big opening events is that the 7 p.m. show has to start in all formats: 2D, 3D and IMAX. A company also bought out an entire theater and gave every attendee concession coupons.
What surprised me most is that with hundreds, if not thousands of people crowding into the three theaters playing Star Wars, 11 people still came to see The Hunger Games and four people came to see The Good Dinosaur in 3D. For reasons that remain mysterious, these movie-goers planned to see those movies that Thursday night, and no monstrous crowd ravaging the parking lot and spreading through every inch of the lobby would keep them from seeing Katniss take on the Capital a month after the release date.
There were few actual costumes among the Star Wars crowd. More vintage shirts and themed hoodies. A lot of lightsabers, only one of which I had to ask someone to turn off during the movie. The buy-out crowd had no trailers, so went straight in with an eruptive cheer. The 2D crowd ended their trailers with an explosive cheer that could be heard from outside the building. The 3D crowd was inexplicably silent throughout the movie, even during the obvious cheer lines, like when Harrison Ford saunters in. I will never understand why.
Once the crowds were in their seats, things got interesting. While the theater staff scrambled to clean and restock a lobby which was drowned in butter and popcorn (there is always one person who drops their entire container of popcorn on the floor) I juggled managing three theaters.
“Cleaning up people’s left-behind garbage is, and always shall be, the worst.”
Then came the clean-up. A single showing of Star Wars can generate 10 more trash bags of garbage than a regular show, and between the three theaters it can take 75 minutes to clean. Cleaning up people’s left-behind garbage is, and always shall be, the worst.
It’s not all broken equipment, under-staffing and garbage up to the ears, though. There were good moments. A person two towns away drove 26 miles to see our midnight show because his local theater closed after the 7 p.m. show and he needed to see it again. An elderly couple sat through the credits and told me how they dated while the first movie was out and saw each one together and were so happy to have this new memory and experience.
And in the end, the crowds made it worth it. There was an excitement in the air I had not felt since The Dark Knight Rises came out and subsequently ended the concept of midnight screenings.
Star Wars brought home the magic, even if it did ruin my life for a weekend.