Show must go on to save Scala cinema
Urban conservationists, architects, archivists, cinema-goers, and all-round romantics have united for one cause: Save Scala.
The rumour that Bangkok's last functioning stand-alone cinema may be subject to the wrath of the wrecking ball has circulated since last week, and the outrage has been swift.
The hashtag #SaveScala has spread. Prominent architects have called for an immediate explanation from Chulalongkorn University, which owns the plot as well as the entire Siam Square. History buffs unearthed the original blueprint of the cinema from 1972, in all its rococo glory, from a time Siam Square was yet to be transformed into the nucleus of commerce and tourism it is today.
In short, the Scala issue has become a multi-disciplinary drama, from film, history, architecture, land development, urban planning, ethical commercialisation, and pure sentimentalism (which we all need once in a while to survive our middle-class ennui).
Anyway, save Scala we must. All of its baroque ceilings and Art Deco chandelier, the curvaceous staircase and warm gloom of the foyer, the 1970s vibe, the musty seats and the not-so-bright screen, the laid-back indifference to change, the cemetery of splendour, all of its melancholy nostalgia and more.
And yet there's a bigger task than just #saveScala: Save it and then what? The more challenging question of every stakeholder, from Chulalongkorn University to conservationists, film lovers and any possible new tenant, is how to find a role and relevance for the venue that, as a business venture, has had its days numbered for years. Apex Group, the current tenant, has kept mum on the subject since the latest rumour, but it's very likely they will soon relinquish Scala and Lido, given the bleeding of cash. A grand, palatial cinema with one screen and 700 seats can't compete in the multiplex era -- not even with The Last Jedi and co.
Chulalongkorn University, or its property management bureau to be exact, is cast as the perennial villain in this #SaveScala narrative. To be fair, it has never said anything about demolishing the cinema -- not that I recall -- and only the darkest of minds would have no qualms about sending in the jackhammer to gore such a beautiful building. The problem, nevertheless, is Chula's track record and its dual role as an educational institution and land developer, a split personality of the most befuddling kind. People are reasonably in a panic that Chula might tear down Scala because that's what it did to other buildings in the area to clear space for more shops and malls. Look at Siam Square or Suan Luang Market, look at the corners of Rama IV Road and Phaya Thai Road, look at the lot opposite MBK. The fruit of destruction, in the tacit urban rule, is a galore of new retail spaces.
After a few days of silence, the university responded by issuing a statement confirming it has no plans to destroy Scala (as of now, Lido, the three-screen mini multiplex that has seen better days, will be considered for improvement first, and that will come in the second half of the year). A sigh of relief, which lasted about five seconds, because people soon started jibing about the fate of Dame Scala: not now, not yet, but not forever.
No, not forever. It's impossible for Scala, we must admit, to remain at it is: a privately run movie theatre, old and slightly ill, proud and magnificent but lurching along reminiscing about its lost empire, the last man standing, struggling to withstand the competition of multiplexes, streaming services and other small-screen distractions that are vastly altering the movie experience. Apex Group has done a great job for four decades, and if they want to bow out now, the ball will be thrown into our court -- conservationists, architects, cinema-goers, romantics -- as well as Chula's.
To save Scala, we must find its relevance, since we just can't save "the Scala building" so that we can gaze longingly at its gradual crumbling. First of all, Chula should commit itself to the preservation of the venue. If the university is clear about that, it then has the choice of either running the place by itself as a new cultural institution, or it can look for a partner to run it. The new Scala can screen movies -- commercial, classic, arthouse, whatever -- or be adapted to accommodate stage performances, theatre play, concerts, even a museum. The hard part is whether the "academic landlord" will be ready to treat it not (or not mercilessly) as a profit-driven project, but a service to the community -- and to history.
Fire gutted the other two grand Siam Square cinemas, the original Lido in a 1990 accident, and Siam Theatre in the 2010 political riots. What may gut Scala, the building and its soul, is much colder: the siren call of air-con capitalism.
Kong Rithdee is Life editor, Bangkok Post.
Bangkok Post columnist
Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.