Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The dead and dying single-screen cinemas of Southeast Asia

I was taken to dinner a couple of nights ago by four young Thai film lovers who humored me by speaking English the whole evening as we ate ramen noodles and Japanese curry and drank copious amounts of iced tea.

We talked about movies of course, and at one point the conversation turned to their memories of the first movies they saw in the cinema, revealing a bit of Bangkok's not-too-distant past just before my arrival here.

For example, I never knew the Lido cinemas in Siam Square were a single-screen theater. It was gutted by fire and remodeled into its present form as a three-screen multiplex and shopping plaza. (Lido 3 was where I saw my first movie in Bangkok, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.) Also, the computer-geeks' mall Pantip Plaza used to have a theater, and there were many other cinemas, long since closed and torn down to make way for hi-rise condos or fancy shopping malls.

The era of the single-screen cinema has faded away, with the Scala and the Siam, neighboring the Lido in Siam Square, as the sole survivors. With the economic gloom, some multiplexes may even start closing. (Or maybe not.)

Coincidentally, there's a new blog, The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project, which chronicles the end of this era. So far, the cinemas covered are in northern Thailand, such as the Mae Sot Rama Theater pictured above. There's plenty of photos and text, such as this excerpt:

"Small town Thai economies have suffered for the past 10 years" and ... operating the family gem was too costly. "We'd like to find a tenant," she added, "but the place is in crap condition and it would cost too much to fix. Tearing it down would also have a high price tag at 100,000 baht."

Hopefully the blogger, whose handle is The Projectionist, will make his way to other parts of Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia and capture these cinemas before the wrecking claws and bulldozers find them.

(Thanks Phil, and thanks to Boat, Te, Don and Jit for showing me a great place to eat.)


  1. I really was a fun night!

    I miss old theaters too.
    Maybe there should be "Goodbye Dragon Inn" the Thai version.
    Remake shot by shot! haha.

  2. I also miss old theatres very much. This topic reminds me of a short Thai documentary called B-GRADE THEATRES (RONG NUNG SHUN SONG) (2005, Norachai Katchapanon, 12 minutes), in which the director interviews many people connected to a standalone theatre. It is sad to see that this kind of business can't survive in the modern world. And I wonder how the standalone theatres' employees earn their living now. From what I noticed, the ticket sellers in some standalone theatres in Bangkok were middle-aged women who had been working there for many decades. After all these standalone theatres shut down, how would they earn a living? You don't develop many skills by being a ticket seller for 30 years. How would they find a new job? Where are they now? These questions bother my mind because I used to frequent a big theatre called Mackenna in Bangkok during 1984-1996, and saw the same old faces at its ticket booth during those years. You can also notice that the ticket sellers at Scala, Lido, and Siam have been working there for more than ten years, unlike those multiplexes which always use new faces. Anyway, I just hope all those old ticket sellers are happy somewhere now.

  3. And not just the ticket sellers at the Apex cinemas, but also the ushers -- guys who have been working those rooms so long, they hardly have to look at your ticket to get you pointed to your seat. They aim the beam of their flashlight right on the seat number. They're like Jedi with a lightsabre.

    You won't find service like that in the mall multiplexes.

    I was struggling to remember the name of the MacKenna theater -- it was still standing when I first arrived in Bangkok, but I never saw a film there.


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