From the Archive: The Recession at the Movies
Originally published May 22nd, 2020
In 2009, Paul Blart Mall Cop made $183 million dollar on a $26 million dollar budget while garnering horrible reviews and releasing horrible trailers. Why did this movie which seemed to be destined for the DVD bargain bin manage to become a success? That’s the question everyone was asking themselves as this little movie just kept making money.
I was managing a movie theater in 2009 and got to see this first hand. I remember quickly trying to move Paul Blart into bigger theaters and opening up more showtimes to accommodate the crowds. No one ever imagined this film would do so well. A few weeks later I read one theory on why the film found so much success: it was a light fluffy comedy in the middle of a recession.
Sure people were lacking funds, but they also needed escape. Houses were being foreclosed on and people were losing their jobs and everyone just needed something to get out of their heads for a while. Paul Blart was just released at the right time, when people needed something dumb and fun to watch, especially in a world where the news and cable television were turning progressively darker by the day.
I remember my old boss telling me that movie theaters were traditionally recession proof, because people couldn’t afford to go to Disney anymore, but they could usually find a few dollars to have a night out at the movies. I worked throughout the recession at the movie theater and he wasn’t wrong. We didn’t do a record number of attendees, but the job was stable and while the world seemed to be collapsing around us, we stayed opened and offered a little light at the end of the tunnel for some people.
One of my more depressing days at the theater involved a theater hopper. For a couple of weeks, our box office attendant noticed this man in a truck who’d buy a ticket for the first show, and then wouldn’t leave till around 4:30 PM each day. He made management aware of this, so we decided to track the gentleman one afternoon to confirm he was indeed hopping theaters.
Being that this was a serial offense, my boss decided to call the police to show that this was serious and stealing. I escorted the police officer to the theater and we asked the guy to come down. I explained why we’re pulling him out of the theater and he looked remorseful. What I didn’t see was the pain on his face that the police officer noticed. He asked the guy to step to the side to talk and I backed off. The man apologized and asked not to be trespassed and offered to pay for all the movies he’d seen. I refused and told him just to please pay for the movies next time in advance and he went on his way. That’s when the police officer described his conversation and humbled me.
The man had recently lost his job. He was a newlywed with a baby on the way and a brand new truck he had bought a week before being let go. He was frantically looking for a job but wasn’t having much success and he had no idea how to tell his pregnant wife that he was no longer employed. So, every day, he got ready for work at the same time, and instead came to the movies and killed most of his afternoon until it was time for him to return to home where he pretended like nothing had changed.
I was twenty-six at the time and thought I knew everything. In one moment, I realized I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know stress or pressure the way this guy knew it, and I didn’t know what a bad day was like that this guy experienced.
I think about this guy every few months and that look on his face as I brought him out of the movie theater. I think about what must have been going through his mind and how embarrassed he was. And I think about how easily that could have been me.