Earlier this month I spent two weeks in Singapore – and glimpsed the future of cinema, though it is probably not what you think it might be. The city/island/state was my home for five years, so it was a welcome opportunity to reconnect with friends and colleagues that I had not seen since before the pandemic. Singapore is sometimes jokingly called ‘Asia for beginners,’ on account of having Chinese, Indian, Malay and other heritage and cuisines all conveniently mixed in one place, as well as being so safe and organised that it is one of the few places in this part of the world where you can safely drink the tap water.
I got to meet and talk to the CEOs of the big local cinema chains, Golden Village and Shaw Theatres, as well as the team behind Asia’s coolest independent cinema operator, The Projector. I talked to the APAC heads of distribution for the likes of Warner Bros. Discovery and Walt Disney, as well as major regional independent distributors, such as Encore Films, which handles everything from anime “Suzume” to “John Wick 4.” I attended the re-opening of the multiplex at Bugis+ (now part of GV) and the pop-up The Projector: X.
Singapore has long punched above its weight in the region and its position at the watery cross road of the strait of Malacca, through which ships pass with the seeming density of a Los Angeles freeway, gives it a unique perspective on the region. However, Singapore is not in any way a typical Asian country as nothing is typical about any two nations (Indonesia vs. Bhutan, anyone?), but it does hold lessons for the whole of the rest of the world. Not because of any technology representing the future, but because of the trends that it exemplifies.
Singapore has 271 cinema screens and an annual attendance of 18.5 million in 2019… for a population of 5.7 million. This gave the country a very healthy average attendance of 3.25 visits per person, per year. It definitely helps that Singapore cinemas are air-conditioned, if not to say often freezing. But the country was hit hard by COVID and the ensuing restrictions. In 2021 cinema attendance was estimated to be just 7.63 million. It is one of the few markets that saw significant cinema operator consolidation, with Golden Village taking over some Filmgarde sites, while The Projector temporarily moved into the Cathay building. mm2 came close to selling its Cathay Cineplex chain to Golden Village.
What is encouraging is to see the renewed focus that the post-COVID realities have had on cinema operators’ customer offerings. The re-opening of the Bugis+ multiplex under GV saw the launch of the Azule Spanish-Mexican cafe and tapas food proposition. It could have been enough to refresh the paint, seats and screens to perk up the cinema, but GV instead invested heavily in making it feel like a brand new multiplex. The ingenuity of The Projector team in transforming the Cathay building into a mixed arthouse-mainstream cinema with little-to-no budget for lobby furniture and fittings demonstrated that the cool vibe in its original Golden Mile Tower home was no fluke. Yet nobody thought that these “new” sites, coupled with more Hollywood films would be enough to bring patrons back to 2019 levels.
The most telling change I saw in Singapore was not in any cinema, but in every second restaurant I went to. And I went to a LOT of restaurants in Singapore, because food is close to a religion there. What struck me was how many had done away with waiters to take your food order, replacing not just the menu with a QR code, but the whole food and drinks ordering process. Not just mid- range and quick serve chains, but even my local go-to for traditional Hainanese chicken rice. In one case the Japanese restaurant Genki Sushi even delivered the food to your seat on a miniature Shinkansen bullet train. It was all more high tech than any of my (pre-COVID) visits to Japan, South Korea or Shanghai. But what was driving it was not the technology, but something that cinemas all over the world have to grapple with – staffing shortages.
Singapore faces a twin demographic challenge. Singapore had a birth rate of just 1.10 child per woman in 2020. Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan all now have birth rates of less than one child per woman. Meanwhile Japan and China have slightly higher birth rates than Singapore, but still below 1.5 children per woman. Only the likes of Malaysia have closer to a natural replacement rate of 1.87. This means that there are not enough children to make up the cinema audience of tomorrow. On a staffing level, Singapore has another challenge in that it has very low immigration for the lower skill service and hospitality sectors (expats relocating from Hong Kong do not count). With the few young people encouraged by their parents to seek high income career paths to support them in their old age, there are few who chose barista, waiter or cinema usher even as a transitional job.
The likes of Golden Village started responding to this challenge even before the pandemic, with automated ticket gates scanning your ticket or mobile QR code. They already launched the Gold Class Express concept with the Funan mall opening, where you order food on your app instead of having a button to summon staff to your recliner. Had the incline of the cinema auditorium not made it impossible, they probably would have even pioneered a cinema robot cleaner. Instead they came up with the idea of renting recliners for afternoon naps to exhausted office workers. Thus GV has not lost sight of service, nor is it purely focusing on premium, understanding that segmentation is the key and innovation is a must. The Projector is having to be no less agile on the indie side, trying to do more with less, even as it broadens its geographic footprint and film offerings.
Singapore is not waiting for cinema-going to revert to what it was before the pandemic, whether the hope for that is 2024 or 2025. Rather it is evolving to meet the changing future where “No Kids” poses a greater challenge than Netflix.
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