Celluloid Economics

Thailand could benefit from following the lead of Singapore and Myanmar in renovating some of the country's stand-alone cinemas

A Singapore-based development firm is making the city-state the first in Southeast Asia to undertake a full restoration of a historic downtown cinema. Meanwhile in Myanmar, one of the region’s oldest operating stand-alone cinemas will soon undergo restoration.

The vaulted, glittering lobby of the Scala Theatre in Bangkok.

Renovations to Singapore’s iconic Capitol Theatre (closed since 1998) are scheduled for completion in early 2015, paving the way for the building to reclaim its former title as the city-state’s premier destination for cinematic entertainment.

The renovations are part of an estimated S$1.1 billion (29 billion baht) mega-project which also includes a hotel, shopping centre and residential units. The single screen Capitol will serve as the anchor of the development, a concept which marks a stark departure from the norm when it comes to seemingly outmoded stand-alone movie theatres in Southeast Asia.

Rather than following the standard pattern of demolishing an exquisite movie palace to make way for new development, Capitol Investment Holdings, the project’s developer, has smartly opted to allocate S$30 million of the total budget to breathe new life into the historic cinema.

If Singaporean developers are willing to invest tens of millions of dollars to revive an 85-year-old single-screen movie theatre, perhaps it’s time for planners and developers in Thailand to begin rethinking the fate of the country’s own historic cinemas. Nationwide, there are a number of viable candidates.

Bangkok alone counts three historic cinemas that, if properly preserved, would serve as valuable sources of cultural capital for years to come. Regrettably, all three are either under threat of demolition by neglect or from redevelopment plans.

Two of the three — the Scala and the Lido theatres, both nestled in Siam Square — are currently in operation. The pair are run and maintained to world-class standards by their original owner-operator, Apex Theatres, which is now owned by Nanta Tansacha, daughter of company founder Pisit Tansacha.

Despite being two of the most beloved theatres in the country and able to count as their patrons most of Thailand’s artistic elite, both the Scala and Lido are at risk of being lost to demolition. Pending loss of the theatres comes at the behest of Chulalongkorn University, landlord of Siam Square, which is seeking to increase its revenue by replacing all existing structures in the district with a series of shopping malls.

The Scala is arguably the most luxurious movie theatre in all of Southeast Asia, a fact not lost on Thailand’s architectural preservation community. In 2012, the Association of Siamese Architects certified the Scala as an architecturally significant structure. Its sumptuous modern lobby, featuring a five-tiered frosted glass chandelier, tapered columns, golden star ceiling medallions and a 10m horizontal wall relief are some of the highlights of this a one-of-a-kind architectural spectacle.

The Lido, unfortunately, bears much fewer distinctions, having lost many of its original architectural features to a fire in the early 1990s. It is nonetheless a valuable cultural asset in the heart of the city, especially when coupled with the Scala.

The third Bangkok movie theatre that is under threat is the now-inactive Sala Chalerm Thani, sometimes known as the Nang Loeng Theatre.

Dating to 1918, the Sala Chalerm Thani is one of only several cinemas left in Thailand dating from the earliest years of movie-going. Its wooden walls and timber frame, combined with its age, endow it with unrivalled historic worth.

Tentative plans to restore the Sala Chalerm Thani by its landlord, the Crown Property Bureau, have been posted on the cinema’s facade for several years now, but a definitive time frame has yet to be given. Should restoration occur, however, and the theatre is once again made a venue for film, it could be rightfully billed as the oldest active, stand-alone cinema in Asia.

Outside of Bangkok, a handful of other elegant but unused stand-alone cinemas have great restorative potential.

In Chiang Mai, the once-grand Saeng Tawan Theatre — featuring an intricate terra cotta mosaic depicting traditional Northern Thai village life on its facade — looms over one of the city’s most important intersections. Though it has been closed for more than 10 years, a restored and active Sang Tawan could do wonders for a section of the city that’s full of important socio-cultural resources, yet sorely in need of an anchor institution.

Similarly, in Udon Thani — one of northeast Thailand’s economic hubs — the long-abandoned Vista Theatre stands at a prominent corner directly across from the city’s largest public park.

In sum, each of these sidelined theatres represents a golden opportunity to transform the cities or neighbourhoods in which they stand.

Admittedly, reincorporating an old movie theatre into a contemporary urban economy is no simple task. Yet for a city to have the means to reach back into its past and make a forlorn artefact not only relevant, but a contributing part society, shows vision and know-how on the part of local leaders.
Singapore is achieving this via restoration of the Capitol Theatre.

Singapore might seem like an obvious place for the restoration of an old cinema to occur. After all, it is a high-income city-state that can comfortably afford to undertake such a project. But that rationale falls short if one considers the upcoming restoration of the over 80-year-old Waziya Cinema in Yangon, Myanmar. The latter is unquestionably not a high-income country, yet planners in Yangon have smartly identified the invaluable cultural capital bound-up in historic movie theatres. Waziya is one of the oldest active stand-alone cinemas in Southeast Asia. It’s a crowning gem of Yangon’s Cinema Row, a movie theatre district that in recent years has been modernised and replaced by buildings.

There is much to be gained through preserving select parts of the past, and cinemas are no exception. The revival and preservation of stand-alone movie theatres have indeed proven beneficial to the cultural and economic life of surrounding neighbourhoods. Numerous examples from cities around the world attest to that. Now Singapore is taking the regional lead.

Restoration of the Capitol Theatre should serve as a precedent for cinema preservation in Thailand and all of Asean.

Philip Jablon is an independent photographer and researcher, affiliated with the Luang Prabang Film Festival. He is working on a book about Thailand’s stand-alone cinemas in conjunction with the Thai Film Archive. His work can be seen at seatheater.blogspot.com.

For more information on Capitol Theatre in Singapore, visit remembersingapore.wordpress.com.

The Capitol Theatre in Singapore.

The Saeng Tawan theatre in Chiang Mai.

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