The challenge of sneaking into the cinema underage in the 1990s, encapsulated in this tale of one person’s attempt to see Bad Boys.
For the purposes of clarity, Film Stories obviously disapproves of and doesn’t encourage the frankly awful behaviour described in this article. It is provided purely as a warning, a testament to previous times. So call the social media police off for us. Ta.
Let me tell you what I did back in the summer of 1995.
I’ll set the scene; the steamy streets of Chelmsford, Essex during that mid-90s summer. An apprehensive 14 year old is standing outside the local cinema on a Sunday morning ready for it to open so he can attempt to use the ticket that he, himself, had purchased the previous day for an 18-rated film. Some curious acquaintances of the would be hero had gathered outside the cinema to see if this brave soul was going to fly or falter in the social minefield that would be attempting to see this film underage.
Would this result in him being a playground legend or loser?
This was a typical scenario for a film fanatic back in the 90s. You were enjoying the Ghostbusters and The Goonies of the world on VHS from your local video shop but, as playground peer pressure would start to be applied, you’d need to go that step further to get a viewing of the hot titles that the others were talking about (whether they’d actually seen them or not).
These were the titles that many an older brother would easily grant access to for those lucky enough to have one. 80s ultra-violent films would be the currency of the school cool. Robocop, The Terminator, Total Recall, Commando et al would all come with the street-cred I desired.
But by 1994, as growth spurts were happening and voices were breaking, a new sport was coming into play. Something with which even an older sibling couldn’t help. Seeing an 18-rated film at the pictures on an opening weekend, then bringing talk of the highlights to school the following Monday. It was the ultimate cool – at least until that kid who goes to Tenerife every summer brings back his usual haul of less than legitimate VHS tapes.
Going back to that day in Chelmsford, back in 1995. My voice was a wobbly mess and I felt that successfully scaling the mountain of 15-rated Speed the previous year was already flying too close to the sun. Never mind underage drinking or nightclubs (Film Stories does not endorse or approve of underage drinking or nightclubs of course – Ed): this was what it was about.
The film that day was Bad Boys, Michael Bay’s first foray into directing a feature. Up until then he was best known as ‘bloke that made that Meatloaf music video’, and he was taken under the wing of uber-producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer to direct a mid-level, low-budget action comedy with two sitcom stars based on an idea originally intended for Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey.
Back in April that year the film had exceeded expectations when it opened in the US taking the box office by storm – a fact that my friends and I had learned from the Channel 4 much-missed 90s morning show The Big Breakfast. We had all rushed into school to discuss how excited we were that the ‘Fresh Prince’ was in a movie where his comedy chops could be put to good use and score a non-supporting role big screen success – an upgrade form Made In America with Whoopi Goldeberg and Ted Danson, that he’d co-starred in two years earlier.
We were all excited and, not long after, managed to secure a UK release date for Bad Boys from Flicks – the free movie magazine that I used to pick up on my cinema excursions. Friday June 16th was that date. And we could not wait.
Then it happened.
A cinema visit in May gave us the terrible news as we left the auditorium. A Bad Boys poster had finally appeared outside. We rushed to it and looked at the cool image of Will Smith, Martin Lawrence and Tea Leoni walking away, guns poised, from a cool looking Porsche.
The colour scheme of the poster and the intentionally grainy image oozed awesome. This was going to be the best film ever! “An explosive, hilarious thrill ride” promised Mike McKay of WBTV in a quote. You bet Mike! And we’ll be there to take that ride come June 16th!
Then our world came crashing down when we saw a little white circle to the bottom right of the title. A single number was the stake through our hearts: 18.
How could this be? Will Smith is a family entertainer! Martin Lawrence was a little bit naughtier but even House Party had been classified a 15. We were all expecting a 12, a 15 at a push!
But an 18? This was devastating.
I hadn’t even contemplated this as a possibility. Some of my group wrote it off. They were happy to wait for the VHS release. But this was the time of huge windows in home format releasing. If the film opened in June, I’d be lucky if I saw it this side of 1996, dodgy Tenerife pirates aside.
Fortunately, we were a little placated by Reservoir Dogs getting its much postponed UK VHS release after being granted a certificate for home video by the BBFC that May. This was worth the wait, but only galvanised my frustration with Bad Boys‘ impending release.
Whereas my friends had moved on, I couldn’t shake this blow. I didn’t want to drink, smoke or go to clubs. I just wanted to be there on opening weekend to see Big Will become a movie star. Though the 18 certificate would likely prevent me from watching the film, the adults-only rating had made it even more alluring. I had to see it.
Thus, I undertook research. I took time to ask older friends about our particular cinema and their experiences seeing Pulp Fiction and True Romance the year previous. What type of obstacles they had to contend with and how strict had the staff been on age ratings?
The information I collated indicated that the cinema team was pretty on the ball most of the time, challenging with questions of dates of birth and even star signs as follow ups. That, and the ultimate shut down, an ID request.
I mean, it already felt like a mission trying to sneak a bottle of Panda Pop in and a tube of Smarties. Still, I had to try.
My conclusion: It wasn’t impossible. However, this was coming from older and, more importantly, taller advisors. Frustratingly, from people that didn’t really care whether they saw the 18-certificate movie they were trying to sneak into. It probably gave them the confidence and the subconscious air of maturity they needed.
What did I have to lose? I already knew I was above the ‘sneaking in’ approach that some of my more naughty advisors recommended, involving trying to get through a fire exit or bouncing from one screen to an unattended other. I was going to have to do this the hard way.
The opening weekend finally arrived. I’d enjoyed clips of the movie on Barry Norman’s Film 95 (essential Monday night viewing), and read all of the reviews and articles I could get my hands on. But the day was now upon me.
My group and I went into the town centre for our weekly trip and I had devised my plan. It was a simple one. Just give it a go. It was as straightforward as that.
I managed to convince my friends as much before we passed the cinema. The plan was to just go in, armed with a fake date of birth should they ask, and attempt to purchase a ticket at the box office. If we managed to pass this hurdle, we would deal with the ticket check when it happened. A few of my friends declined to try, they felt the risk of embarrassment was not worth it, but two brave souls decided to risk it. We went into the cinema and joined the box office queue.
Friend one fell at the first hurdle, was asked date of birth and, oddly, gave them his actual date of birth.
Panic was setting in. If friend two had the same issue then the box office lady, who distractingly looked like my mum, would be primed for another miscreant attempting to break the law. I let another couple of patrons go in front of me to break the cycle. Sure enough friend two was rejected, falling at the ID stage as oppose to the date of birth, leaving with a glance over to me.
I needed a new tactic, this wasn’t going to work, think fast! The two transactions in front of me where completed and I stepped up.
I had decided, rather than jumping straight in, I would try to engage in a conversation and stealthily attempt to get a ticket that way.
“How are you? Just looking for a bit of information really. What’s new this week?” I politely enquired.
I knew that she would probably recommend the release in Screen 1 (the biggest and best screen): Bad Boys. Instead, she straight out asked me how old I was.
“18…tomorrow. Tomorrow is my 18th birthday”.
I figured I would play the odds with this gamble as if I had just popped in for a bit of information as oppose to a well thought out attempt to breach BBFC guidelines.
She may be persuaded, if she was a little reckless, to let me in a day early.
“Well, If you’re 18 tomorrow, then you could see Bad Boys” she replied.
Implying that I didn’t know anything about the film, I asked for more information on it. She told me the little she knew, mainly bits from an information sheet that she likely had under the counter. Whatever the outcome, I had certainly got further than my partners in crime, even to the point that she was recommending the film to me. I said that it sounded good.
“What time tomorrow would are you looking to watch it?” she asked.
I see, she wasn’t going to sell me a ticket for today’s screenings but there would be some kind of victory in walking away with a ticket in any shape or form for tomorrow. Even if I didn’t return the next day I could frame the ticket or something.
“Just the one ticket?” she confirmed.
Of course, I thought, I wasn’t going to let any of my friends take me down in a blaze of glory when I’d done all of the work. Though when looking back I was unaware how tragic it must have sounded that I would be coming back to watch a film alone on my 18th birthday.
She handed me the ticket, I thanked her and left quickly. My friends were astounded to see that I had a ticket and I regaled them with the events that had just unfolded. Some support was offered along with some jealous predictions that I would be foiled the next day and that I should quit while I was ahead.
I spent the rest of that day debating whether or not I should give it a crack the day after. I’d managed to get this far successfully but deep down part of me envied my friends for being put out of their misery quickly. I decided I was going to go for it and, stupidly, informed my friends.
I knew they’d now probably be there to see me fly or fall – adding an extra layer of anxiety to the whole situation.
I spent the evening choosing my clothes and dad’s aftershave for the next morning. I even contemplated buying an ’18 today’ birthday card with a badge to display but figured this would add insult to injury and be another embarrassing layer to the story should I fail.
Needless to say, I didn’t get a lot of sleep the night before and headed into town far too early the next morning, roaming the empty centre until just before midday. I watched the cinema shutters open from a safe distance. I also noticed a small group of friends had gathered on a wall opposite the cinema entrance to see how things would turn out. Around 12pm I headed into the cinema with my heart racing. I got out my ticket and headed straight for the entrance of Screen 1. The two ushers by the screen door were talking to each other as I walked up to them and gave them the ticket.
I couldn’t charm them as they were barely paying attention to me, so I figured I would just act confidently and go for broke.
Hardly breaking conversation with each other one of them asked if I had ID. I said that I didn’t, to which they said they couldn’t let me in.
Ouch! That went south fast.
I felt a big gulp forming in my throat and asked if I could speak to their manager. Credit where it was due, one of the ushers immediately grabbed a manager or supervisor who was walking by and explained the situation. Politely, I was informed that they could not let me into the screen without ID but they would refund the ticket and that they were sorry for the inconvenience. I wanted to feign outrage but everyone was being so polite about the whole thing, and I understood that I was ultimately at fault, I had nowhere to go.
Reluctantly, I agreed to accompany the manager to the box office to get my refund. I contemplated receiving my refund and then going to hide out in the toilet to give my friends outside time to disperse, buying me time to think of a strategy to soften the onslaught of ridicule I expected to be coming my way.
As I walked to the box office with the manager to process the refund, the lady that had sold me the ticket the day before was on the neighbouring till.
“Happy birthday” she said with a warm smile of recognition.
The manager asked her if she knew me.
“It’s his 18th birthday today” she responded.
I felt my heart skip a beat. Was this a last minute salvation? The manager, obviously debating what he should do and likely with the added incentive of not having to go through the inconvenience of processing a refund decided to give me the benefit of the doubt.
“Alright, you can go in this time but you need to remember to bring ID with you in future” he conceded.
I could have kissed them both.
The manager himself walked me to the screen door, tore my ticket and informed the ushers – who seemed indifferent to the whole situation – that I could go in. I walked down the dark corridor into screen 1 with a skip in my stride, the guardians of the auditorium behind me and an 18-rated Will Smith-headlined action fest in front of me.
I sat down in the screen and let the warm glow of the screen wash over me only this time with a little bit of extra magic in the air. I was alert and on my best behaviour for the two hours on the off chance the manager realised the grave error of his ways and wanted to come in and pluck me out with no notice.
The film played, I enjoyed it as much as I hoped I would and as I left the cinema I threw an extra thank you to the box office lady. Little did she know that she had been my guardian angel.
I was a legend in the school playground, eagerly telling anyone that would listen about the film and how I had conquered the age rating to see it. I had the poster up in my bedroom, first the bringer of bad news now a badge of honour. Whenever I watch Bad Boys or recommend it, for all of its flaws, I always think of that opening weekend and it will always hold a special place in my heart for that reason.
My next underage cinematic adventure would be David Fincher’s Seven the following January. It would involve a wearing a suit and missing my first day of work experience. But that’s another story…
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