Cinema workers: Opinion Piece From “Under Appreciated Funmaker”

29 May

Around 2006 I heard an observation made by someone who had worked at TVNZ concerning pay rates. His estimation of a projectionist’s skill base was worth about $25 an hour for a comparable skill set at TVNZ. More than twice the rate that cinema projectionists earned at the time. Now, in 2012, I wonder what projectionists might gain by simply switching career and taking their skills elsewhere.

These days little has changed with regards to pay rates, although some significant changes have occurred elsewhere in the cinema exhibition industry. The release of James Cameron’s Avatar in 2009 provided a catalyst for a big push in the rollout of digital cinema for one thing. New Zealand cinema chains looking for capital to upgrade to 3D capability quickly turned to Australian investors, and 2010 saw Berkeley Cinemas added to the NZ arm of Hoyts, while Event Cinemas, the other major Australian player, bought up Village Cinemas for their own stake in the New Zealand market. The plan? Both Aussie giants appeared to be aiming at two-year conversion to digital cinema in New Zealand. Apparently news of a public backlash against 3D in the United States wasn’t terribly concerning. The smarter position might have been to test the water, get 3D capable, and then string out the upgrades to take advantage of new technology as it becomes available, and descends in price.

Poster used on May day strike at Event Cinemas

But what’s all this costing anyway? $100,000 is a conservative upgrade for one projection system. The most dominant 3D system on the market requires a silver screen, and that means a screen replacement for most venues. And the prices just go up. Before you know it cinema complexes are each looking at $1 million to update every projector, and we’re not entirely sure why because let’s face it, 2K digital cinema is no better to look at on the screen than a 35mm feature film.

Which brings me back to the cinema employees. The projectionists, with a technical aptitude that other industries seem happy to pay for; the duty managers, with practised clerical and customer service skills, barely a few dollars off minimum wage; the army of cinema attendants who are on minimum wage; and the new wave of boutique cinema staff, still being offered cinema attendant pay rates when baristas elsewhere earn around $15 per hour, and chefs quite a bit more. There’s something a little lop-sided about a picture of cinema chains throwing huge sums into something that is not quite as heavily needed as we’ve been led to believe. One tends to wonder at the positions of the Australian investors. It’s fair to say that they get a return on their investment, but there is increasing evidence that some of them don’t mind bleeding New Zealand dry in the process.

One of the most stark examples we’ve seen in 2012 are the wage offers from Event Cinemas for their 2012 collective agreement. The New Zealand Government decided that last year’s minimum wage of $13.00 per hour was to increase to $13.50, a factor of 3.85%. This surprised quite a few, but then considering the soaring inflation rates of last year it was not entirely unexpected. And we should anticipate a 3% increase in the minimum wage per annum anyway. Event Cinemas, on the other hand, apparently had something else in mind. Their initial offer was so poor that I’ll just call it "unmentionable" and move right along. They since relented somewhat and produced an offer that was merely "insulting". The starting rate for cinema attendants would again be minimum wage, while tiers of increased experience have been marked at 20cents per tier, or 3% and 2.2% increases respectively. Key roles further up the pay scale have been offered a 1.7% increase. A disturbing response to the minimum wage increase, to say the least.

So while cinema chains scramble to invest in expensive technology, and the cost of living skyrockets, perhaps it’s time to consider the plight of the workers who keep these giant ships afloat. The cinema workers are the "fun-makers". They are the ones slaving away to ensure that patrons can buy a couple of hours of fun, and yet they’re often the ones left with very little to show for it at the end. They are however worth something, and deserve a fair deal so that they too can afford to have some disposable income, and from time to time buy their own little slice of fun.

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