Cinema of the Month: The Projector – Singapore

By Patrick von Sychowski | September 12, 2017 12:38 am PDT
The Green Room at The Projector in Singapore

Celluloid Junkie is proud to have partnered with Vista Entertainment Solutions (VES) for the Cinema of the Month series. Vista is the world’s leading cinema management software solutions company. We won’t just be featuring cinemas whose operators use Vista, but we will surely mention when that is the case (like this month – The Projector is a Veezi customer). CJ would like to thank everyone at Vista for partnering with CJ to showcase some of the most interesting, innovative and inspiring cinemas from around the world. 

It is hard to believe that Singapore did not have a dedicated art-house cinema prior to the opening of The Projector in early 2015. The city-state of 5.6 million people has amongst the world’s highest cinema attendance (4.2 visits per person per year), with Golden Village, Shaw and Cathay multiplexes showing Hollywood, Bollywood and Chinese films, as well as the occasional non-Hollywood movie.  There is also the active Singapore Film Society, the Substation arts centre and even the Rex cinema showing south Indian films. But the closest to an independent screen was the Yangtze cinema, showing soft porn films, which was bulldozed 2015. All previous art-house efforts in Singapore either failed or folded.

Elevators at The Projector in Singapore
A pair of decorated elevators whisk cinemagoers to The Projector on the fifth floor of the Golden Mile Tower in Singapore. (Photo: Adinda Purnama)

What is even more remarkable about The Projector is that it was established in what was once Singapore and Malaysia’s largest cinema, when Chong Gay Theatres Ltd opened the 1,500-seat Golden Theatre in the Golden Mile Tower on Beach Road in 1973. The single screen and its old style stalls and circles went out of fashion with the arrival of mall-based multiplexes.  Even subdividing it into three halls could not save the cinema from slow decline. Two of the three screens shuttered while the main auditorium played soft porn, North Korean propaganda films (!), Mandarin and then Hindi films to ever-shrinking audiences.

Then along came The Projector, the brainchild of specialists in urban regeneration projects with no background in cinema or films. Sisters Karen and Sharon Tan and Blaise Trigg-Smith were running the design consultancy and management company Pocket Projects when they stumbled on the opportunity to take over the two shuttered Golden Cinema screens on the fifth floor. “It’s not often that you come across old cinemas and we thought we could do something quite special with it,” Sharon Tan told The Straits Times. But they didn’t end up re-doing the space for a client. “We thought, ‘Let’s find a cinema operator, maybe.’ Because we are not from that background,” Karen said. “But we could not find anyone. So, we decided to do it ourselves.” Instead they partnered with the design practice FARM and launched an Indiegogo campaign themselves to raise the funds for two digital projectors and to refurbish the seats, screen and lobby area.

The campaign hit 109% of its USD $50,000 target, with Singaporeans rallying to the idea of having an ‘independent cinema and creative platforms’ in a historic location. In the two-and-a-half years since The Projector has grown to deliver on its ambition of not just being a place for quality films and one-of-a-kind events, but also a versatile space and inviting cinema cafe that is a welcome alternative to Singapore’s samey multiplexes. The Projector isn’t aspiring to the to the hipster-chic aesthetic of Shoreditch/Williamsburg/Los Feliz because it embodies its own effortlessly cool vibe from Day One.

The Cinema Space
The Projector was always conceived as much more than just a screening room, with its two auditoriums having distinct identities and functions. The 230-seat Green Room (previously Golden 2) is the alternative cinema hall for  indie, foreign, cult favourites, documentaries, classics, art-house and Singaporean films. The former Golden 1 is now Redrum (from Kubrick’s “Shining”, but pronounced ‘red room’),  a 180-seat mirror image of the adjacent Green Room, except it has had some of the chairs removed and replaced with bean bags, as well as a stage.  As the Indiegogo campaign explained:

We want to bring back the fun, communal aspect of going to the movies that vanished together with the drive-in cinema, and so we have re-designed the interior of the other cinema hall into a more playful, flexible, casual lounge, events space & private screening room all in one. Comprising a mash-up of the original cinema seats, floor seating in the Pit, tables for enjoying delicious grub, and a small stage, the REDRUM will be home to our Group Therapy Sessions, which will offer a lounge environment and a dramatically different F&B experience all in one.

The space has a steady-stream of non-cinema events and is rented out as a private space. More than just a hipster hangout, the creation of a multi-purpose space was a deliberately savvy move by the founders to spread the financial risk of launching a dedicated art-house cinema. Particularly as previous such ventures, such as Sinema Old School at Mount Sophia, ended up folding. Unlike National Museum’s Cinematheque or The Arts House’s Screening Room, which get public funding through their parent organisations, The Projector has to fund itself from its own revenue as a private limited company.

Each auditoriums seats might be creaky but there is no denying the charm of the two spaces, with the founders having retained the elements of the original worth saving, updated the bits in needs of modernising and introduced quirky new additions. The Projector has collaborated with SoftRock Living, the lifestyle furnishing company that supplied the designer beanbags, design brand Grafunkt for furniture and even the Scandinavian vintage chair and table importer Möbler for pieces throughout the venue.

Films & Events
“The one thing I’ve learned about the Singapore audience is that you can never second-guess their tastes,” Karen Tan once told me after the cinema’s third sold out performance of Woody Allen’s “Manhattan”. It was programmed because, well, they thought it would be fun. If The Projector has an eclectic programming, then it is because their audience has proven to have an even more eclectic taste. The Projector has been brave and persistent in its film selection, particularly when dealing with international indie distributors in Europe or the United States who will often either not bother or over-charge for having their films released in just one location in this far flung territory.

The cinema launched with the help of film consultancy Luna Films, but has since developed its own strong programming and event capabilities under programmer Viknesh Kobinathan. The most commercially successful film in its first year was “Taxi Teheran”, even though The Projector also ran “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, including an after-party on the day of the premiere later the same year. The Projector has become home to several of Singapore’s annual film festivals, with the Israeli Film Festival just concluded and the Finnish Film Festival about to start. Your’s truly has seen bigger audiences for a single screening of an obscure Swedish documentary at The Projector than probably all the people who saw the film in a cinema in its native territory.

The Projector goes the extra mile in creativity by designing its own posters for many of the releases with original artwork used across print online and social media. Above is an example of the poster for the cinema’s 25th Anniversary screening of “Reservoir Dogs”.

The Projector has also been particularly good at “eventising” its screenings, by having themes, Q&A talks, parties, tie-in special drinks and other types of events before and after showings. It also goes the extra mile in creativity by designing its own posters for many of the releases with original artwork used across print, online and social media.

This also includes having its own trailers and special cuts of upcoming film promotions. As well as running John Waters’ ‘No Smoking’ PSA it has a custom-made ‘switch off your phone’ policy short by local filmmaker Kirsten Tan (no relation), whose Sundance winner “Pop Aye” ran for a long time at the cinema. As well as classics, indies and cult films, The Projector has been strong in supporting local film and documentarians, including bravely showing the controversial “1987: Untracing the Conspiracy”, which might not have endeared it to local authorities.

Cafe & Bar
The Projector has been changing and experimenting with its cafe and bar space ever since the cinema opened. What was an empty and drab foyer between the three entry points (a pair of elevators, a car park and the very Instagrammable spiral Hitchcockian staircase) has been turned into a cozy and funky space, perfect for lingering before or after a film. It may have taken the Tan’s over a year to get a permanent box office, but the imaginative iron cage design now balances the retro bar opposite perfectly. The furniture selection and arrangements in this common area is forever changing, meaning that it never feels staid.

The Intermission Bar serves coffee, soft drinks, juices, cocktails, draft beers, wines and themed drinks, as well as offering popcorn (freshly popped, though with too much ‘old maids‘), nachos and different types of hot foods, usually with a local twist (salted-egg yolk fries or kaya scones anyone?). The staff are friendly and efficient, with The Projector having found the right partner to operate the bar, rather than trying to do it all themselves.

In addition there is The Great Escape in a cordoned-off section of the outside car park on the same fifth floor. With panoramic view of the green Kallang lake, parks and National Stadium the space is perfect for both parties or a chilled drink after a screening on weekends. With nightfall always at 7:00 pm (as Singapore lies on the equator), many head here early on weekends, even without going to see a film, just to hang out and take #OOTD (Outfit of the Day) Instagram selfies. There are also frequent parties with live DJs and food and drink selections from vendors setting up pop-up stands.

As for the toilets, they might not have been refurbished since Golden Mile Tower first opened, but The Projector has plastered every last square centimetre of wall space with old and new film posters, to give it a unique feel. The corridors in and out are decorated with trippy murals by local artist Speak Cryptic (aka Farizwan Fajari). The lobby space was even briefly home to the Clockwork co-work space as The Projector continues to try new things.

Social Media
Having been “midwifed” by crowdfunding, The Projector’s founders understand the importance of social media and its online presence, not just curating its film programming. The design-driven ethos is apparent right from the big The Projector logo that greets visitors both at the entrance to the building and on the website. While all arthouse cinemas know and use social media as a low cost but high labour tool for reaching and engaging with audiences, The Projector is amongst the best examples of excellent use of social media by a cinema.

The Projector is active on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. It is on the last of these that The Projector excels, not just with photos from films, but food porn, funny PSAs (“Bend The Knee Jon Snow”), photos of the staff at work, film listings and much more. It takes a lot of work to keep this up, but the account has over 11,000 followers. (By way of comparison Golden Village (Singapore’s largest multiplex operator) has just 8,651 followers for its @gvmovieclub Instagram account.)  And this doesn’t even take into account The Projector’s website and weekly newsletter.

Hip and Happy – Not Hipster
The Projector recently expanded with the opening of a third auditorium. The space next to its lounge had previously been a prayer hall (yes, really) which was recently vacated by the church group. Surprisingly it has a more traditional layout and cinema feel than the two original steep-climb auditoriums. Following refurbishment, the opening was announced in typically tounge-in-cheek style in the cinema’s weekly newsletter:


The Projector - Blue Room. (photo: The Projector)
The Blue Room at The Projector in Singapore. (Photo: The Projector)

Oh yeah. This ain’t a smokescreen- it’s a spanking new screen. Like S&M level of spanking. THE BLUE ROOM. Looks super neon red but trust us there’s actually a lot of blue seats. Don’t be annoying.

Lotsa blood, sweat and mansplaining went into this deceptively simple refresh. Yes. So here it is.

The Projector is hip but also smart, warm and welcoming. It has been lauded in Monocle magazine and Louis Vuitton city guides, but it would be wrong to pigeonhole it as a celluloid hipster hangout. If you can manage the vertiginous climb up the stadium seats in the Green and Redrum (the Blue Room has a more traditional cinema slope) then The Projector is as welcoming to families for weekend matinee “Frozen” sing-alongs as it is for people looking for a theatre still showing “Baby Driver” or those anxious to catch the new Sophia Coppola film.

Having operated for almost two years, The Projector is now firmly a part of the fabric of Singapore’s film, art and event scene, so much so that it is hard to imagine life in the city without it. Singapore might only have one art-house cinema, but The Projector makes up for this by being quite possibly the best art-house cinema in Asia.

The Toilets at The Projector in Singapore
The Projector in Singapore has plastered every last square centimetre of wall space in the toilets with old and new film posters to give it a unique feel. (Photo: Towkay New)

Celluloid Junkie selects the CJ Cinema of the Month based on our own independent survey. We always pay for our own tickets, wine and Chicken Karaage, and visit the cinema in a ‘mystery patron’ capacity in most cases. Whenever possible we take our own photographs of a cinema in lieu of corporate stock photos. Thus, sometimes you get authenticity at the expense of focus. Our impressions may be subjective, but we always try to be fair and factually accurate in everything being presented about one of the cinemas we have chosen.

Patrick von Sychowski
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