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Commentary: The Projector’s Cathay pop-up shows people don’t want cookie-cutter cinemas anymore

The Projector is stepping into the fairly large shoes left by The Cathay Cineplex. But the indie cinema operator might just give the Netflix generation a good reason for movie-going, says former movie critic Edwin Yeo.

Commentary: The Projector’s Cathay pop-up shows people don’t want cookie-cutter cinemas anymore

A view of The Cathay at Handy Road in Dhoby Ghaut. (Photo: Cathay Organisation Holdings)

SINGAPORE: News of Cathay Cineplexes shutting down cinema operations at their historic building was met with a mixture of sadness and nostalgia. Netizens reminisced about the first movies they caught during the cinema’s heyday, and the family members, friends and crushes they spent time with there.

In light of precedents such as Filmgarde shuttering two outlets in January due to falling patronage, The Cathay Cineplex’s closure seems yet another sign the cinema business is floundering. Or that even movie lovers are being more careful about where they will spend their stretched dollar.

The Orchard Road belt has no shortage of cinemas: There’s nearby Golden Village at Plaza Singapura, Shaw’s flagship Lido and Cathay’s own Orchard Cineleisure.

While there are some differences in terms of the quality of the experience across different cinemas, they are ultimately peddling the same products. So Cathay might have decided the Dhoby Ghaut location no longer made business sense.

But the closing down of The Cathay Cineplex doesn’t mean the end of the building’s rich history. Indie cinema operator, The Projector, is stepping into the fairly large shoes left by one of Singapore’s most storied movie theatres.

Is it a case of wide-eyed enthusiasm, by a comparative novice in the industry, to launch a pop-up at a third location while others are recalculating the profitability of each screen? Or do the folks behind The Projector know something that industry veterans don’t?

THE PROJECTOR FOCUSES ON NICHE, ARTHOUSE OFFERINGS

It’s clear that The Projector has been going about business in a decidedly different way from most cinema exhibitors.

The Projector in Golden Mile Tower. (Photo: TODAY/Ili Nadhirah Mansor)

First, their line-up skews towards films which are best categorised as independent, even though there’s still a healthy dose of summer blockbusters such as Top Gun Maverick and Lightyear.

But most of the films at The Projector are rarely shown in others and look more at home at film festivals. More importantly, most of these films rarely find their way onto streaming platforms.

Hence, The Projector’s strategy is to create a unique and somewhat niche offering, but balancing that with a blockbuster or two is bound to put some bums on seats.

That alone is probably not enough to ensure the success of the business. After all, Cathay tried this with The Picturehouse in the 90s, marketing it as an arthouse cinema next to the old Cathay building.

But it eventually was shut down as the whole complex underwent renovation, reopening as one of the screens at The Cathay Cineplex. The Picturehouse was met with much acclaim, but probably less commercial success, and eventually gave way to more familiar Hollywood fare.

It’s no coincidence that The Projector is naming their outlet Projector X: Picturehouse, as a tribute to the location’s arthouse heritage.

HAVING FUN WITH CINEMATIC HERITAGE

And that’s the second unique proposition about The Projector. They always sniff out locations that have a strong cinematic heritage, even if that heritage is somewhat less than savoury.

Their first location, Golden Mile Tower, was home to the Golden Theatre, which was once infamous for screening adult films.

Their second location, at Riverside Point, was also renowned in the 90s for Studio City cinema which later became a Chinese discotheque.

It was that very discotheque that The Projector took over, and in doing so, not only honoured the theatrical history of the building, but also the disco era, keeping facets of, in their own zany words, “the siambu life” and “all that disco glitz and V6 glam”.

And that’s the third thing and probably the one that accounts the most for The Projector’s success. If you look at their website, it’s clear that the team knows how to have fun.

While other cinema operators have websites which are mostly functional, The Projector markets itself with humour. That translates to their product, giving patrons a unique and fun experience beyond just your traditional movie-going or the more luxurious gold class versions.

At Golden Mile, they hype up their “intermission bar” as having all kinds of "gourmet shit" (their words, not mine) – “craft beers, creative cocktails [and] the best goddamn nachos you’ll ever eat in a cinema”, a claim I’ve yet to verify.

At Riverside Point, they turn every weekend night into a party, with live gigs and all sorts of music from trap to Latin jazz.

GOING TO THE CINEMA NOT JUST FOR A MOVIE

In essence, The Projector gives the Netflix generation the best reason to go to the movies: To get an experience you can’t replicate at home, no matter how huge your OLED TV is.

This implies the folks behind this venture are disruptors, by offering a curated experience instead of selling the same Disney+ product in a cinema hall.

Getting people back to the movie hall after the pandemic isn’t about number crunching how many screens are sustainable for the business to survive, or counting on Marvel to keep churning out one blockbuster after another.

Now that The Projector is setting up shop at The Cathay, there’ll be yet another attraction at the heritage location besides a busker’s standout performance.

Edwin Yeo, a former movie critic, leads the Singapore office of SPRG, a regional integrated communications agency.

How has COVID-19 shaken up Singapore film? Find out from two local filmmakers on CNA's Heart of the Matter:

Source: CNA/el
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