The guys that clean eight-story IMAX screens

The cleaning heads roll over screens in an up-and-down motion.

Michael Quaranto can’t count the number of times he’s heard, “Wait, you do what for a living?” He sighs. Most people just don’t understand why he’d give up his job as an airline pilot to clean nacho cheese and silly string from movie screens after-hours.

In 2004, Quaranto – along with his best friend and fellow pilot, Andrew Brown – founded 1570 Cinema Services as a way to rake in extra cash. But business boomed, so Quaranto quit his job to clean screens full-time. Now, the two work on more than 1,000 screens per year across the world – from North Carolina to Australia to South America.

Title: Partner and co-founder, 1570 Cinema Services
Age: 34
Salary: If we hired someone full-time, we’d pay them between $40,000 and $50,000/year.
In the industry for: 19 years
Screens he cleans in one night: 15 to 20. The average person could probably only clean five or six in a night.
Based out of: Chicago, with another small office in Houston, TX
Graduated from: Baylor University, degree in business marketing
Dream job in college: Airline pilot
Previous jobs: Clown’s assistant; every department in the grocery store; bicycle mechanic; waiter; busboy; Starbucks barista; airline pilot

Job description in one sentence: We service flat screens, domes, and [standard-sized] 35mm screens in theater chains, museums, and science centers worldwide.

How he got the job: When I was 15, I worked cleaning movie screens for my friend’s father, who had the world’s only screen-cleaning company. I continued to do that part-time when I was an airline pilot, and we kept getting requests to clean IMAX screens. My friend’s father said nobody knew how to do that. I realized there was a gap in the screen-cleaning market, so I started a business [cleaning large-format screens] with Andrew.

Dust "dreadlocks" on a cleaning head after cleaning half a 35mm screen-built up in 12 months.

Something people don’t know about you: It’s hard for people to understand why we’d give up a job flying planes to work at removing gummy bears from movie screens. It’s like being a janitor on a vertical surface.

Well, why did you switch careers? I love owning my own business and having a niche market. It allows for a ton of flexibility and freedom.

How do you reach the high screens? The traditional theater chain screens are only about 30 feet tall, so we use aluminum extension poles from the ground. We put custom-made towels over the cleaning heads on the poles to dust the screen. Then, we spray on a sudsy cleaning solution from a pressurized bottle and rinse it. If we’re working between shows, we’ll dry the screens with a microfiber material.

What about cleaning huge IMAX screens? We use a machine because the extension poles can’t reach that high; most are seven or eight stories. Pulleys connect cleaning heads, which are made of wax-infused lamb’s wool, to an electric motor that moves the heads up and down.

Does that hurt your upper body? Andrew and I are not very muscular – we’re two tall skinny guys. It does wreck your shoulders. Driving home the next day, it’s hard to touch the top half of the steering wheel.

Andrew Brown using an extension pole to clean the Science Museum of Virginia’s IMAX dome. Photo credit: Kevin Morley

How long does it take to clean one screen? An IMAX screen takes 8 hours. We’ll go in at midnight or 2 a.m., work through the night, and finish in the morning. You have to get on a different schedule.

What do you charge? Varies by size. Regular movie screen, local, $90; IMAX screen, local, $5,000; additional airline costs depending on location.

Grossest things you’ve cleaned off? Spit wads, lugies, silly string, and anything you can find at a concession stand – like gummy bears and nacho cheese.

Best career advice: Remain positive and stay away from people who say you can’t do it. A lot of people said we couldn’t clean IMAX screens, but we knew it could be done, so we pursued finding a process.

LAUNCHING YOUR CAREER>>
Looking to start a business in a niche market? Michael Quaranto offers three tips.

1. If you’re looking to start a new business, keep your full-time job. Don’t completely quit without knowing whether your product will sell. Then, once you figure out a business model, patent the process. For us, that took about two years.

2. Attend conventions and join associations related to your target market. That way, you can find out what other people with similar businesses are doing to stay fresh. For example, we occasionally attend conventions for the Giant Screen Cinema Association.

3. Seek out the decision-makers at companies. Recently, I sent direct mailers to about 100 people, including before/after images of our screens. Even if we only get four responses, that will pay for itself. I took the time to hand-write the envelopes and make the notes personal.

Would you quit your desk job to clean movie screens, even if it meant having 100% flexibility and control over your schedule? Comment below!