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The Usher Uprising

In the U.S. and U.K., movie theater assistants are organizing union drives, fighting for higher wages and more secure employment. They deserve it

During the opening week of The Rise of Skywalker, 20-year-old movie theater usher Jake Levitt had to clean up puke more than a dozen times. He had to interrupt teenagers making out and even kick out one couple for getting too handsy. He had to mediate a dispute between two mothers whose children kept trying to fight each other. He had one man tell him to fuck off when he caught the man trying to get into the theater using a day-old ticket. And he had to unclog five toilets. Yet none of that was nearly as bad as having to clean cum from his theater’s old fabric seats. “There was quite a lot of it. I was horrified!” he remembers. More disturbing still, the movie that inspired those stains wasn’t even raunchy. It was an afternoon matinee of Aquaman.

In the 1940s, a period considered to be the “golden age of cinema,” the role of a movie theater usher was considered to be very prestigious — a job that required considerable skill and training. It meant memorizing the run time of each film, knowing the theater’s seating chart by heart and being charming enough to make a trip to the movies a special experience. Today, however, while their title is fancier (Levitt is officially a “Cinema Assistant”), ushers have pretty much vanished from the large corporate chains that dominate the industry. Barring a handful of independent theaters, where a traditional usher may be present (mainly to add a quaint feeling), the modern movie usher is likely to either be a machine or someone like Levitt: a low-paid teenager whose job largely involves checking tickets, asking people politely not to use their phones and picking up their trash when they walk out. 

The thing is, though, the work of a movie usher hasn’t slowed down or become that much easier (even with automation technology like self-service machines). Last year, for example, following the release of the highly anticipated Avengers: Endgame, Thomas Broome-Jones, a movie usher in the U.K., described in a now-deleted Twitter thread how he collapsed due to mental and physical exhaustion during the movie’s opening night. “Today, I was expected to clean up after 300 people in 10 minutes, alone,” he wrote. “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.”

Similarly, Cynthia, a pseudonymous 23-year-old movie usher in South Carolina, tells me how she and her colleagues are given just 15 minutes between screenings to clean theaters at the AMC she works at — a target she says is “nearly impossible” to meet. Amy (also a pseudonym), an 18-year-old student in London and former movie usher at the Vue theater chain, adds, “I remember a Saturday afternoon — usually the busiest time — when my manager told me to train three new members of our team, while also managing the box office. I had no idea what was meant by training. I’d never even done training myself. But my manager just disappeared afterward.” 

“A lot of the other staff were in the dark when it came to senior management,” she continues. “Plus, even if we wanted to do something about our work conditions, everything was always so fast-paced that you’d be exhausted by the time your shift was over.”

As such, a growing number of movie ushers are at the forefront of the unionization movement, both in the U.S. and across Europe. Last year, employees at the Salt Lake Film Society in Utah formed a union to demand higher wages and binding contracts, inspired by Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You. Meanwhile, last month, floor staff at AMC signed a petition against the company, demanding that it reform its policies on overtime (due to a loophole in U.S. federal law, movie theater staff aren’t given overtime pay, unlike most other hourly wage workers). Along these lines, in the U.K., the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (or BECTU) has been running campaigns for years that aim to unionize movie theater staff across the country and to fight for higher wages and more secure employment for low-paid and part-time staff.

Gen Z-ers like Levitt, then, find themselves at the forefront of the battle against corporate power. For him, though, it’s as much a personal battle as a political one. “I love movies because my dad used to take me to the cinema, and it’s how we’d bond,” he tells me. “But if all the staff goes away, the cinemas won’t run and they’ll close for good.” 

Which is why he’s fighting to preserve his craft — and why he cleans up all that bodily fluid, plunges all those toilets and puts up with all of us assholes.