October 12, 2022
SINGAPORE – When it was announced earlier this year that indie cinema operator The Projector was taking over the space in one of Singapore’s oldest cinema locations at The Cathay, it left many asking: Who, or what, is The Projector?
Though the entity has existed since 2014, the people who run it are no strangers to blank looks when their venue’s name is mentioned.
A few weeks ago, founder Karen Tan was leading a group of tertiary students on a school-assigned tour of Projector X: Picturehouse, its newest pop-up at The Cathay, which launched in August.
She asked the group, aged between 17 and 21, if they had heard of the cinema before the tour.
“Three out of the group of 30 said they had,” she tells The Straits Times.
Ms Tan, 42, and general manager Prashant Somosundram, 43, are unfazed because they accept that Gen Z grew up with streaming and on-demand viewing on tiny screens.
Ms Tan adds that the youngsters were awed by its largest hall, a 590-seater, as they were used to smaller halls of around 100 seats found in most neighbourhoods.
That 590-seater has been around since 2006, though mostly under a different banner. That year, The Cathay building in Handy Road reopened as a heritage-conscious new structure after the previous building – at the site since 1939 and one of Singapore’s oldest cinemas – was torn down.
The Cathay Cineplex, as it was then known, was part of the Cathay Cineplexes chain. In 2017, entertainment company mm2 Asia took over Cathay Cineplexes, with its eight cinemas, from original owners Cathay Organisation.
The Projector was thrust into the spotlight when it was announced in June that mm2 Asia would be parting ways with landlord Cathay Organisation and leaving the Handy Road site on the 27th of that month.
Cathay Organisation had offered the space to The Projector, giving it its first foothold in the high-stakes, high-visibility Orchard Road area.
On Aug 19, Projector X: Picturehouse launched there as its second pop-up, following its first, Projector X: Riverside, which was set up in 2021 at Riverside Point.
Since then, the cinema’s Handy Road location has crossed a few milestones.
It is known for its strong food options – its hot dog sausages, for example, come from Huber’s Butchery – and its kitchen is fully open, serving crispy shrimp toast and beef cheek rendang, among other snacks and full meals. Its bar, too, is open.
Another landmark? In early September, Chie Hayakawa, the director of the Japanese film Plan 75, flew into Singapore and gave a sold-out post-screening Q&A session at the 590-seat hall, named the Majestic.
“It was the largest screening we had ever done because we’ve never had such a large venue, so it counts as the largest Q&A we’ve ever done,” says Ms Tan.
She founded The Projector with her younger sister Sharon Tan and Ms Blaise Trigg-Smith as a project under their company, Pocket Projects, a creative development consultancy and management firm with a knack for helping property developers and landlords find new uses for older structures.
It was they who saw the potential of the disused Golden Theatre at Golden Mile Tower and who turned it into The Projector in 2014. Today, it is known not just as a cinema, but also a hub that includes dining and live entertainment, including DJ and comedy nights.
It was even one of the landmarks visited by American pop star Charlie Puth when he was in town in September, and was featured in his video collaboration with the Singapore Tourism Board, which aimed to showcase the sights and sounds of Singapore and promote it as a destination.
Mr Somosundram adds that the Plan 75 turnout is all the more impressive because the film, a serious what-if look at a Japan that has turned to euthanasia as a fix for its growing numbers of the elderly, would be considered a non-mainstream movie, attracting only the attention of serious film buffs.
That is not to say The Projector does not screen crowd-pleasers.
For years now, it has followed the arthouse-and-mainstream mixed programming model set by cinemas such as the Curzon in the United Kingdom, says Ms Tan. Today, patrons can find edgy fare such as Plan 75 existing alongside the Hollywood romantic comedy Ticket To Paradise at its venues.
Given the number of halls it has to fill, and the food and drink sales needed to fund operations, a pure arthouse model would never work financially, she adds.
Mr Somosundram joined The Projector in 2017 after having founded Artistry Cafe, a spot that became known for its art exhibitions and performances as much as for its food. It closed in 2018 when the former full-time officer in the Republic of Singapore Air Force opted to spend more time with The Projector.
Their combined experience – she in the art of the re-use of older buildings, he in the food and beverage business – has proved advantageous.
They cannot stop looking for sites, they add, because two of their current sites are pop-ups and, therefore, temporary in nature. Their current original premises in the ageing Golden Mile Tower run the risk of redevelopment if a collective sale occurs, as has happened recently with its neighbouring building, Golden Mile Complex.
Ms Tan and Mr Somosundram believe that one of their primary tasks is to rekindle a love of going to the cinema in older people, and to foster the cinema-going habit in the laptop-and-tablet generation.
They are banking on a formula of boundary-pushing programming, good food, an informal atmosphere and growing a loyal pool of patrons, in order to set The Projector apart from the competition.
For example, patrons can purchase a meal of any size at its lobby cafe and, if they want, eat it in their cinema seat. In other cinemas, that sort of dining can be done only in purpose-built premium halls.
Indeed, fans of The Projector have come to expect that a full movie-going experience includes a movie, drinks at the bar and a DJ set, all in one night, in one place.
As Mr Somosundram puts it: “We need to figure out a way to make people fall in love with the big-screen experience.”
That job includes raising public awareness about their brand, such as by letting members of Gen Z understand that it exists and that it stands for a lot more than just cinema.
At the end of the Project X: Picturehouse tour Ms Tan conducted for the students, she took another poll, asking them if they would return.
“Every one of them said they would be back. That’s the new audience that we should be getting. They understood the brand, they loved the vibe. That’s good news to us.”