Cineplex says hosting gig was reward, not job
of sacrifice — of the lengths some young hopefuls feel they must go to in order to make it in the competitive entertainment media industry in Canada. They must often navigate lopsided power dynamics, low to no pay and sometimes overwhelming demands from employers in pursuit of their dreams.
Zipchen was preceded in his role by Toronto’s Sam Maggs and Ben Gordon and Edmonton’s Shannon Burns. The trio of similarly young hosts won Cineplex’s countrywide “casting call” audition in 2014 by submitting sample videos that were then voted on by moviegoers. Upon winning, they each signed yearlong agreements to host and introduce pre-show segments featuring celebrity interviews, movie previews and advertisements.
It sounded like a dream gig, but there was one condition: They wouldn’t be paid. Or not in cash, anyway.
The unpaid positions required one to two days of filming per month. As the official contest rules stated, “the value associated with the opportunity to host pre-show and online segments is merely the experience of appearing in the pre-show on Cineplex screens across Canada.” The rules added that the hosting gig “has no retail value and winners will not be paid to appear.”
Each host was to receive 52,000 Scene loyalty points, or enough for one free movie per week at the time, as well as 12 high-definition movie rentals from the Cineplex store.
The contest winners jumped at the chance, despite the lack of pay, because they saw it as a doorway to bigger and better opportunities.
“It was pretty obvious from the get-go that payment was going to be for Scene points, but I saw it as a job for exposure,” says Maggs, who was 25 and working as a writer for a news website at the time. “All three of us saw this as a fun side gig and I would have seen those 50 movies anyway.”
In retrospect, Maggs now has mixed feelings about her experience. The opportunity did pay off as she ended up working for other entertainment companies — she has since written for Disney Publishing and videogame maker BioWare, among others. Cineplex also did pay her to produce online videos after her hosting tenure ended.
But she also believes the workfor-exposure model privileges certain types of people.
“I feel very grateful for it, but I also feel very fortunate that I was in a position where I could take this one to three days off from my day job easily or not worry about missing a day,” she says. “I recognize that not everyone might have been in that position.” Gordon, who was 26 when he won the casting call and now works as a freelance pitch creator and researcher in advertising, is also glad he participated, but he shares those concerns.
“It was a really positive, unusual experience, but it’s interesting to position a job as a reward,” he says. “It ultimately really is a job and I think what we were doing was worth quite a bit.”
Cineplex held another audition contest in 2015 and this time the gig went to a single winner — Zipchen, who, like his predecessors, had to hustle to win online votes.
Zipchen recalls enlisting friends and family to help with what became a daily campaign to garner support on social media. Some chipped in with Photoshop and video production, others rallied their own respective friends to submit votes.
He was working at a Saskatoon radio station at the time and also trying to plan his imminent wedding. The night before the ceremony, he was in an airplane hangar shooting a “Mission Impossible”-style video in an attempt to cross the finish line.
“I should have probably gone and figured out the details of the (wedding) venue or whatever,” he says. “But you don’t want to turn back because you’ve put so much time into it.”
Zipchen ultimately won the contest and earned the hosting deal, complete with Scene points. The job started out with similar requirements as his predecessors had — and similar working hours — but he says they asked him to do more and he agreed. He enjoyed the work and thought it would lead to something bigger. Soon after, he was flying to junkets around the world to conduct interviews.
The expected one or two days of shoots per month became weeks away from home.
The radio station was accommodating, he says, and gave him the time off he needed — unpaid — but the Cineplex work started to take a financial and emotional toll on the newly married couple. Zipchen says they had to rent out a room in their house to pay bills. His friends say Kelsey, who was employed as a teacher and working long hours herself, needed help with the housework.
“He was gone for half a month at a time. She leaned into her friends for support because it’s not what they were expecting it to be,” says Kim Camboia, whose grandparents sold the couple their house. “It was a lot of pressure on both of them and it’s definitely not what they expected for the first few months of their marriage.”
Zipchen started to push back and says Cineplex eventually agreed to pay him “a small monthly fee” in exchange for writing articles for its website. It wasn’t enough given the overall scope of his role, he says, so he kept pushing.
“You can’t pay a mortgage with Scene points,” he says.
After his one-year contract expired in September 2016, Zipchen negotiated with Cineplex and finally, in January 2017, the company agreed to make Zipchen a full-time employee if he moved to Toronto. He would be paid a regular salary in cash — and the Scene points would stop.
He packed up and made the move on his own dime in March 2017. Kelsey followed that summer after wrapping up her teaching job. Unsure if the gig was going to pan out long term, they moved into a small downtown condo and rented out their Saskatoon house, with Camboia enlisted to manage it.
Kelsey says she found a parttime tutoring job and then got a position teaching child actors on film sets. The couple weren’t fully happy with their financial situation, but they had laid a base and settled in, with expectations of better things to come.
Cineplex’s pre-show isn’t insignificant to its bottom line. In its most recent quarter, the company reported total overall revenue of $418 million, with $22.6 million classified as media revenue, an increase from $20 million in the prior year period thanks to higher showtime and pre-show advertising.
The company insists the hosting gigs weren’t jobs, but rather rewards, at least until Zipchen was brought on full time in early 2017.
“Cineplex does not, nor has it ever paid employees through Scene loyalty points,” Van Lange said in an email. They “all entered into the contest and won the opportunity to be our pre-show host for a year as well as being awarded enough Scene points to watch free movies for a year as part of the contest prizing.”
Shaun Hatton, who previously had hosted TV shows “Electric Playground” and “Reviews on the Run,” says Cineplex also approached him outside of the contests in early 2015 about a potential pre-show segment focusing on video games. As with the contest winners, he says the company offered him Scene points but no pay.
Hatton, 36 at the time, felt he was an established professional, so he says he rejected the offer.
“I remember being very disappointed,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is going to be awesome,’ but when they mentioned (the Scene points), my heart sunk.” Van Lange would not comment on whether the company offered Halton a position, and maintained it does not pay employees in points.
Echoing Maggs’s and Gordon’s concerns, employment experts say societal attitudes toward unpaid work in exchange for exposure, like that done by Cineplex hosts between 2014 and 2017, have shifted in recent years.
Many corporations were engaging in the practice as social media platforms such as Twitter and Instagram were first developing and as eager individuals tried to build online followings. But many on both sides have since soured on work-forexposure as a greater understanding of the drawbacks has emerged.
Among those is the possibility that workers in such situations can be taken advantage of, according to Shauna Brail, who has run the experiential learning and internship program for the University of Toronto’s urban studies department.
With few mechanisms to protect such individuals, the practice is more frowned on than it used to be. It also prevents a large portion of the population from participating.
“It privileges people who can already afford to do that,” she says.
For Zipchen, now a few weeks removed from his Cineplex experience, the surprise of his unexpected termination is starting to subside. His thoughts are slowly turning to the future. He’s not sure what his next move will be, but he’s anxious to start trying out for film and TV roles.
He recently joined the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists, the union that seeks to ensure actors receive fair pay and treatment from employers.
If there’s a bright side to his situation, he says, he’ll now have more time to attend auditions. His continually furrowed brow betrays disappointment with how his Cineplex experience unfolded and finally ended, but he refuses to be overly negative about the past five years.
“I knew what I was getting into … You have to be prepared to make sacrifices,” he says. “It was a chance to follow my passion and do what I love.”