Wesley Snipes (right) in The Art of War
  • Wesley Snipes (right) in The Art of War

As far as movies went, the summer of 2000 was a season of disappointment. The big-studio flops included, but were not limited to: Battlefield Earth, Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot, the Wesley Snipes actioner The Art of War, Coyote Ugly (Jerry Bruckheimer’s misbegotten attempt at a feminist statement), Paul Verhoeven’s Hollow Man (though, unlike any of the other movies listed here, that one has gotten better with age), and a couple of flat children’s features (Titan A.E. and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle). I remember all of these more vividly than I probably should, since I spent the summer working at a suburban multiplex that was on its way out of business and could no longer afford to rent high-profile titles. It was a bit like working at one of those cramped little video stores you used to find in supermarkets and gas stations, except that all the movies were on celluloid.

On weekday afternoons, there were almost no customers to speak of. On weekend afternoons, there were only slightly more. I made friends with the high school dropouts behind the concession stand, and every shift we found new ways to entertain ourselves. We played pranks on each other, competed for the title of who could eat the most nacho cheese in a shift, rode the wheeled container we used for popcorn kernels like a mechanical bull, did doughnuts in the parking lot with the shitty used cars we all drove, and tracked down and busted kids sneaking into R-rated movies as though we were undercover cops (not because we had anything against the kids, of course; whenever we caught them, we’d send them into another movie for free). On occasion we’d watch parts of whatever movies the theater was showing, typically in 20-minute chunks while a coworker manned the lobby, keeping a lookout to alert us via walkie-talkie if one of our managers should happen to drop by the theater. I developed a soft spot for all the movies we showed, since they kept the theater in business, albeit just barely.

Like an all-ages equivalent of a dive bar, the multiplex that summer attracted its share of lonely regulars. One was a kid who always paid for his ticket in change and savored the process of counting out his coins. Another was a middle-aged man who came to the first show of the day every Saturday, always in sweatpants and a dirty undershirt. I got the impression that some of his most fulfilling conversations of the week were with me. (“I’d love extra butter! Great idea!”)

Most of our customers, though, showed no interest of ever coming back. They were not charmed by the leaky ceilings, moldy bathrooms, and blatantly apathetic staff. I wonder if the parent who left a dirty diaper on the floor of the theater showing Chicken Run did so out of contempt for the establishment or whether he or she thought we wouldn’t notice the difference. As for the young couple caught attempting intercourse while The In Crowd played to an empty room, I never wanted to contemplate their motives, and I doubt I ever will. Still, I continue to think fondly of that summer job whenever I see a disposable new multiplex release like Into the Storm or Think Like a Man Too. I usually come out of my reminiscence almost wishing the theater I’m sitting in were slightly less clean.

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.