In this new age of streaming and dwindling cinema patrons, there is a growing sentiment that cinema is dead. With mm2 shutting down The Cathay Cineplex or Filmgarde closing the Bugis Plus branch, cinematic spaces are threatened by changing financial and viewership landscapes. Why should we not believe that cinema is in a moribund state?
Such is the premise posed to our guest speakers at the post-screening panel of our programmed film Scala on 30 October 2022. With speakers Ananta Thitanat (director of Scala), Chew Tee Pao (archivist at Asian Film Archive), Benjamin Slater (film academic), and Wong Han Min (film memorabilia collector), the panel features a filmmaker, film archivist, film academic, and film collector to discuss different aspects of the cinematic experience.
The panel comprising (from left to right): Ananta Thitanat, Chew Tee Pao, Benjamin Slater and Wong Han Min
What is the Death of Cinema?
To filmmaker Thitanat, “everything has to change, and nothing lasts forever.” This acceptance reflects her observational approach in Scala that documented the tearing down of the iconic Thai cinema, understanding and processing the inevitable changes that must come with time. To archivist Chew, this Death is reflected in two forms: one, the closure of standalone cinemas and cineplexes in Singapore and two, the changing patterns of film consumption. Reflecting on the Yangtze Cinema Chew at Pearl Centre that Chew visited pre-demolition, nothing could be “salvaged” or taken from the cinema. All that we have left are films like Scala to “document the history” and “memories of the people.”
This reminded Slater of the Prince Theatre on Beach Road, which he visited when it was converted into a megachurch. He brought up a salient point of how the death of cinema is not just the disappearance of the physical space, but also the death of the theatrical experience. When the cinema was converted, it remained “a place of worship”, where churchgoers and cinema-goers use the Prince Theatre at different times for their “rituals” and “feel some kind of transcendence.” What is different now is that the cinema-going experience of buying a ticket, sitting down with snacks, and waiting for films to begin has shifted in the age of ‘content’ – for better or worse. Finally, Wong reminded us that the Olden Theatre’s closure was a shock considering that it was screening the best blockbusters which filled all the seats during its time.
Why Are These Cinematic Spaces Important?
To Chew, the cinema-going experience is akin to a ritual: buy a ticket, sit next to a stranger, turn lights off, and anticipate the start. We do not know anyone, but it is still a very communal experience. This is something that cannot be replicated with mobile devices. But for the younger generation, going to the cinema might become foreign to them, and it is inevitable given the popularity of live streaming platforms. It has turned from a ritualistic experience to one based on convenience. This idea of experience is a key point by Thitanat, who mentions that after a movie ends in the cinema, “the feeling sticks with you.” This cannot be replicated on Netflix or digital technology, where the focus is easily lost, and the experience fades immediately after watching.
Slater then raised how cinema is always changing. One example was the arrival of television. On one hand, it brought the films closer to audiences, but on the other, censorship, poorer quality, and modified aspect ratios changed the original films. Chew also mentioned this alteration in the cinematic form, observed in the shift from analogue film to digital film. But to Slater, digital platforms can also have benefits in the improved picture and sound quality due to technological advancements, which makes it difficult to think of these changes as either completely good or bad. Ultimately, we are just “dinosaurs” who worry about nostalgia, having experienced what cinema could be.
So while speakers like Wong confessed that they have turned to streaming platforms because of the pandemic, they do also remind audiences to visit the last major Singaporean cinemas still standing, such as Oldham Theatre, The Projector @ Golden Mile or Shaw Lido. Chew shared an anecdote about The Projector co-founder Sharon Tan, who recalled that at a school tour she conducted, out of 30 students, only two of them had heard about The Projector. Therefore, to avid filmgoers, The Projector might seem well-known. But for a newer generation, we cannot assume the same.
Benjamin Slater offers the audience a point of optimism.
What Can We Do?
Slater, once again, brought up a salient point that instead of viewing cinemas as dying or dead, we should be reminded that it’s “all about money.” If the cinema still makes money, it stays. Just as how a superhero or Tom Cruise movie continues to pack cinemas, cinema is not as dead as it is “thriving.” Looking at streaming experiences, then, there is a “richness and diversity” to them that does not make them mutually exclusive with physical cinemas. We can be optimistic about cinema’s survival.
This resonated deeply with Chew. Another important point raised here is a reminder to streaming audiences that just because it is online does not mean it is there forever. Just as how Netflix licenses films for a certain period, from an archivist’s point of view, putting films on streaming platforms does not make them permanent.
Thitanat concluded that “cinemas will definitely go,” whether it would be in five or ten years. All we can do in the meantime is do our best to preserve the cinematic experience. Just as how archivists retain and remind us as much of the old films as possible, or how Thitanat documented the Scala’s demolition, or a film memorabilia collector assembling documents of past cinematic experiences and highlights, or an academic studying the form, so long as conversations continue and people persist in celebrating cinema, we can declare that:
Cinema is not dead.
Ticketholders to Scala were treated not only to the forum but a free post-forum buffet.
Our 2022 articles offered a selection across four broad categories to facilitate your perusal. This article was part of the DISCUSS category: To read more thoughts by the directors of our programmed films. For the inquisitive and filmmakers.