Perhaps you, like me, have walked past a closed movie theater in the last few days and wondered about the people who used to work inside. Whether it’s the person who takes your tickets, or shovels butter-glossed popcorn into a paper bucket, or patiently clears away the garbage to ensure a clean next showing, movie theaters are run by a veritable constellation of hourly workers. But the current shelter-in-place order makes such workers’ livelihoods precarious; as cinemas are considered nonessential businesses, Chicago’s beloved movie theaters have been shuttered. That’s why the Chicago Cinema Workers Fund was started as a fundraising effort directed at alleviating the financial hardships of the industry’s hourly staff.
After seeing how quickly the New York cinema community responded to the shutdowns by creating a mutual aid fund, Nightingale Cinema founder Christy LeMaster says she started to reach out to her colleagues in Chicago about starting a similar effort. “Cinema runs on really thin margins. All of us in the industry understood there would be severe consequences to this kind of shutdown,” she says. “After two or three weeks, we started to see widespread need. Lots of cinema workers were being laid off.”
LeMaster then teamed up with Michael Metzger (curator at the Block Museum), Raul Benitez (lead programmer at Comfort Station and Full Spectrum Features, a much-needed financial sponsor), Yuki Sakamoto Solomon (coordinator at the Chicago International Film Festival), and others, creating the beginnings of an extensive network to reach out to cinema workers in need.
Not only does the fund seek to uplift cinema workers; LeMaster says that it is also about keeping Chicago’s cinema ecosystem vibrant and healthy for the hopeful future. “I want to live in a city where I can see a big blockbuster that’s going to be in every major cinema in the nation on the same weekend and I want to go to small hard-to-find art house movies,” she says. “That whole thing is one economic system and the people who are doing the hourly wage work for those cinemas are the ones that need our protection and support.”
Metzger adds, “On the application form [for the fund], there’s a space for people to talk about the hardship they’re experiencing as well as to write what working at a movie theater means to them. This was an eye opener—both in just how much people are struggling but also in how much pride people take in their job and the joy they have in working together around cinema.” The fund is essentially a way to show solidarity, and what Metzger calls “a first manifestation” for understanding how we as a city can come together to solidify our support for those whose livelihoods, health, and security are being threatened in this moment.
As of May 2, 103 people have applied for aid, their home theaters ranging from more corporate cinemas like AMC to smaller local ones like the New 400 in Rogers Park. While applications for aid are now closed, fundraising continues with the goal of raising $25,000—that gives each applicant at least a $300 payout. To support the Chicago Cinema Workers Fund or find more information, you can visit chicagocinemaworkers.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. v