Film fans throw lifeline to struggling indie cinema The Projector

Carolyn Teo

A beloved independent cinema that was among the first businesses closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus may be among the last to reopen.

With uncertain economic times threatening to extinguish its light forever, The Projector’s fate is now in the hands of the same community of film buffs that crowdfunded it into existence six years ago.

One of those is Alexis Ng, who became a supporter soon after the Golden Mile Tower cinema opened. When she saw that it needed help staying afloat, she joined those buying tote bags, movie ticket vouchers and streaming movies. The 42-year-old freelance marketer said she did so because the cinema always has a great lineup of exclusive films. She, like others, hopes her support will preserve an alternative source of films that matter.

A happy ending is far from guaranteed. It’s been nearly three months since the multiplex, known for screening diverse films from cult classics to international festival picks in its retro theatres, was ordered shut in March.

General manager Prashant Somosundram, 40, still isn’t sure when he can welcome cinemagoers again. 

“We were not surprised. Judging from global trends (in China, US and Europe), we were expecting that cinemas and nightclubs would be the last to open,” Prashant told Coconuts Singapore.

Its return will only be allowed in the third phase of reopening the economy, when social, cultural, religious, and business gatherings are expected to resume. 

Singapore’s lockdown exit plan shows long way to go for bars, cinemas

The ‘Redrum’ hall. Image: The Projector

But Prashant estimates that though the cinema could reopen by late July or early August, it may take at least six months before business is back to normal.

“Even now when we reopen, we know that there is going to be a chance of closing again if numbers stack up again because of community transmissions,” he said. 

Singapore officially ended its “circuit breaker” lockdown measures on June 2. The city-state has reported 38,296 cases and 25 deaths since the outbreak began in January and continue to report hundreds of new cases each day, mostly in migrant worker dormitories. 

COVID-19 the greatest hurdle

The Projector, located at the Golden Mile Tower on Beach Road, opened in December of 2014 at the former Golden Theatre, Singapore’s biggest cinema back in the ‘70s. 

Just six months ago, it was having its best run since opening. Then the COVID-19 pandemic threw up its greatest hurdle.

“We’ve been growing steadily for five years and January of this year was actually our best month in the five years we were operating,” he said. “It’s definitely been challenging but we do have a strong community support.”

Prashant said that all three pillars of the business have been affected: the cinema, the bar and events. The Projector regularly rents its halls out for parties, talks and other events.

“While necessary, safe distancing measures effectively reduce(s) our operating capacity by 50% or more. Unfortunately at this point, rental rates have not come down proportionately. And with a cinema, we are not able to mitigate a reduction in operating capacity by offering ‘takeaway’ options in the same vein that F&B outlets can,” Prashant said.  

Additional manpower will also be required to enforce things like crowd controls and testing patron temperatures.

Still, he added that such measures “would be instrumental in preventing new waves of infections, restoring public confidence and enabling the industry to recover faster.”

The iconic flip-up cinema seats from the 1970s, currently used in their halls. Image: The Projector

So during this time it has sold merchandise to fans for much-needed revenue. Patrons can also spend S$120 to “Adopt-a-Seat” and have their message affixed to one. The cinema has also offset losses by offering paid streaming movies through its video on demand platform. 

They have included Singapore-made documentaries such as The Last Artisan, which covers the history of the hundreds of statues at the Chinese mythology theme park Haw Par Villa, and Singapore Gaga, which gives voice to Singapore’s singing vendors, street performers, and cheerleaders.

The Projector also offers food and beverage delivery of its popcorn, chilli dogs and craft beers for home movie nights.

Prashant said that some of the online initiatives have met a modest response and enabled him to reach audiences who have yet to step into a theater. 

New systems will be introduced for life after COVID.

“Moving forward, we are working on a concessions pre-ordering system and enforcing contactless payment methods to minimize risk of transmission between our staff and guests,” he said.

With a Little Help

Six years ago, it was community support that gave birth to The Projector.

Bringing the old cinema back to life was made possible by the over S$70,000 (USD$50,000) raised via IndieGogo. More than 400 backers chipped in to transform the former Golden Theatre into what it is now. 

The Intermission Bar. Image: The Projector

Renovation of two of its three halls preserved many of the existing features, including the original flip-up chairs and wooden armrests. The names of the backers are displayed on the screen before the movies begin. 

But even when the cinema reopens, there will still be immediate challenges to overcome, some of which stem from adhering to safe distancing measures, according to Prashant.  

Prashant said he plans to continue to implement measures such as contact tracing, temperature taking, self-enforced social distancing measures when they reopen, even going to the lengths of acquiring new equipment for disinfection. 

“We even bought cool ghostbusters-style disinfectant fogging machines to sanitize the halls regularly. Might as well have some fun in these challenging times,” he said. 

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This article, Film fans throw lifeline to struggling indie cinema The Projector, originally appeared on Coconuts, Asia's leading alternative media company. Want more Coconuts? Sign up for our newsletters!