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Founder of arthouse cinema The Projector champions local films before they make it big

Karen Tan was an early supporter of Pop Aye's Kirsten Tan and The Apprentice's Boo Junfeng.

Few thought two-year-old The Projector would have lasted as long as it has, given the dismal history of arthouse cinemas in Singapore.

But few have Karen Tan’s eye for spotting potential in neglected properties. The Projector is not only a place for watching movies too financially risky to screen in mainstream halls, but it is also an ecosystem that encompasses a lobby cafe-bar, a carpark bar and a co-working space.

In April 2014, potential is what she saw in two dusty, disused cinema halls on the fifth floor of Golden Mile Tower, a somewhat shabby relic from the 1970s taken over by dodgy pubs and restaurants.

By the end of that year, after rapid renovations, The Projector hosted its first screenings, for the Singapore International Film Festival. It had two halls, the 230-seat Green Room and the 200-seat Redrum, named after a phrase from the 1980 movie, The Shining.

  • Ms Karen Tan, co-founder of Singapore'’s only independent arthouse cinema, The Projector. (Photo: ST)

Now, powered by a young, design-savvy team, it imports its own films, hosts themed film festivals and gives Singapore film-makers a place to show works long after downtown cinemas have taken them off the programme.

The cinema has become an indispensable resource, says local film-maker Kirsten Tan, 32. “It really plays a special and crucial role in the Singapore film and cultural landscape and I hope it will continue to do so for many years. There’s nowhere else like it,” she says.

In an e-mail, the writer-director writes about how the cinema operator “readily agreed” to give her a space to screen her short film, Dahdi, about a grandmother giving refuge to a child asylum seeker.

Karen Tan became a fan of Dahdi after she saw it at its sold-out Singapore International Film Festival screening in late 2014. “It won awards and we knew there was a demand from people who couldn’t get tickets,” says Karen Tan.

The short was screened as part of a double-bill with local film-maker Tan Shijie’s Not Working Today. Writer Alfian Sa’at moderated a panel discussion. Patrons dropped cash into a donation box to pay for the space.

Tan’s call was proven right: Every seat in the Redrum room was filled, with more people standing. That decision, which blends an idealist’s passion for the arts with caution born of a former career in investment banking, set the pattern.

The Projector is now into its second year of business as a private limited company, with no direct aid from public arts grants. Without revealing numbers, she says the business is in the black.

Kirsten Tan’s career has also blossomed since that screening in 2015. Her debut full-length feature, Pop Aye, will be released here soon, after winning prizes at the Sundance Film Festival and in Europe.

Karen Tan and I are chatting in the cinema lobby in the mid-afternoon. Screenings do not start till the evening, but there are a few people here, tapping away at their laptops and sipping free tea. They are among the first to sign up for Clockwork, a co-working scheme Tan has just launched. It lets subscribers use the space during daylight hours for a monthly fee, starting at $140.

She wants to maximise the use of her venue. From 9am to 5pm, the space is used by one group. After 5pm, when screenings start, another bunch comes in for drinks at the Intermission Bar in the lobby.

They might also venture through the rear exit to carpark cafe-bar The Great Escape, owned by actor-restaurateur Adam Chen. His spot is where people go for after-screening parties. It has hosted album launches, motorcycle fan meets and bartending competitions.

“We charge pretty much half the market rate,” says Tan of Clockwork, which drops frills such as networking parties and receptionist services. She is looking to expand the concept to more spaces around town.

The slogan for Clockwork is “Get s*** done”. It is homespun and a little edgy, in the spirit of The Projector.

That sort of boldness appears in Pocket Projects, the first company Tan founded in 2010 in Singapore.

Billed as a “creative development consultancy and management company”, it works with property owners, investors and architects to turn areas – typically in older, neglected neighbourhoods – into offices, homes, shops and restaurants, with an emphasis on design.

So far, the consultancy has regenerated a row of eight conserved shophouses in Geylang (the award-winning Lorong 24A Shophouse Series), another 22 shophouses in the Malaysian capital (The Row, Kuala Lumpur) and with design practice Farm, the once-shuttered Beach Road cinema that would become The Projector.

The shophouse projects were done for clients and handed back. The Projector, however, is atypical. It is funded and operated by Pocket Projects.

Three years ago, an architect friend working in Golden Mile Tower tipped her off about the premises, which in the 1970s, began life as Golden Theatre, before being split into a multiplex in the 1990s.

Tan took a look at the two shuttered halls and was smitten. “We didn’t have the time to find investors,” she says. “We thought, ‘Let’s find a cinema operator, maybe.’ Because we are not from that background. But we could not find anyone. So, we decided to do it ourselves,” she says.

The history of arthouses in Singapore would give anyone pause. Large operators such as Shaw Organisation and Cathay started them in the 1990s, after the Restricted (Artistic) rating was ushered in. But after a first flush of success, public interest dropped to levels too low to sustain for-profit operations.

The Projector’s first strategy was to build symbiotic relationships. It began with an appeal on crowdfunding site Indiegogo, which raised US$55,000 (S$77,500) and gave donors an emotional stake in the business.

The cinema consults with Gavin Low, director of film distributor Luna Films, on programming. Food and beverage operations in the lobby are handled by Prashant Somosundram, co-owner of Artistry, the Jalan Pinang art gallery-cafe. Shelves are stocked with material about arts events around town. No money is spent on advertising – e-mail, Facebook and Instagram are the preferred platforms.

Low, 43, says he holds the same belief as Tan: The Projector will work as long as it sticks to its core belief of “screening good films that need to be seen and giving a platform to smaller films”.

In practice, it means giving local films such as Boo Junfeng’s The Apprentice (2016) a long run, he says.

But altruism can go only so far, because rent and salaries need to be paid. Tan gives Low and programmer Viknesh Kobinathan, 28, free rein over curation, but the rule is that no film, foreign or local, will be screened to an empty hall. The Holocaust film, Son Of Saul (2015), despite winning the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, suffered an unexpectedly low turnout, so it was pulled after a short run.

The cinema’s status as a scrappy rebel fighting the corporate cinema empire is proclaimed in the handmade art adorning the walls. Until recently, the ticket counter was jerry-rigged from scrap. The venue has been booked for live music and panel discussions. Corporate events, such as team-building sessions, product launches and media conferences, are vital to the venue’s financial health as these are charged at a rate that allows The Projector to give discounts to non-profits and artists, Ms Tan says.

“We are really, really lucky. We have a passionate team. They feel they do meaningful work,” she says.

Tan and Pocket Projects’ co-founder, Blaise Trigg-Smith, handle the venue’s strategic direction. Day-to-day operations are overseen by Tan’s younger sister, Sharon Tan, 32, the general manager, who used to work as an urban planner. The rest of the team include two marketing employees, a projectionist and a film programmer. A full-time cleaner has just been added and there is also a crew of volunteers who help with ticketing, ushering and other odd jobs.

She is painfully aware of the vibe of hipster preciousness clinging to the venue, which the media never fails to point out. “We kind of struggle with being pigeonholed as an arthouse cinema or a hipster cinema,” she says.

The space is much more than that, she says. It has hosted family days, such as Disney’s Frozen Sing-Along. Denise Phua, Member of Parliament for Jalan Besar GRC and president of the Autism Resource Centre (Singapore), dropped in recently to speak at a screening of Life, Animated (2016), a documentary about an autistic man who broke out of his withdrawn state through a love of Disney movies.

Nothing in Tan’s life indicated that she would carve out an independent cinema. Her father is retiree Tan Hup Foi, former chief executive of Trans-Island Bus Services, and her mother, Madam Koh Yang Get, is a retired civil servant .

“My parents aren’t strangers to thinking innovatively,” she says. They “didn’t bat an eyelid” when she told them about plans to start a cinema because they taught her the value of the calculated risk, she says. From Raffles Girls’ School, she went on to Raffles Junior College, where she prepared to study medicine in university.

However, her interest in medicine waned and, as she was interested in design, she took up architecture at the University of Melbourne. She switched to The London School of Economics after a year in Melbourne because she became interested in the financial workings behind architectural ideas. By 2004, she had a master’s in real estate economics and finance. She lived in London for almost a decade, working in investment banking and as a boutique developer.

The capital city’s vibrant cultural life, especially its cinemas, fascinated her. It was also where she became friends with Trigg-Smith, who was a colleague at the time.

She returned to Singapore in 2010 with the idea of founding Pocket Projects, to put into practice what she picked up in London about urban rejuvenation.

The Geylang Lorong 24A project was landed almost immediately. The move from investment banking to urban redevelopment involved a “steep learning curve” and almost made her a pauper, she says, half seriously.

Now, to keep herself balanced, she practises yoga and takes contemporary dance classes. She lives in a Holland Village apartment with her dog, a West Highland Terrier.

She is proud of how, in a short period of time, her team has made the cinema a cultural landmark. It has been lauded in the Monocle magazine and Louis Vuitton city guides. Contrast that with when it first launched, when buying films was difficult because distributors did not take newcomers seriously.

But she is not resting easy yet. “We’re lucky to have a supportive landlord. But like all small businesses in Singapore, you’re subject to the vagaries of the market.”

She is glad that The Projector is no longer considered a start-up. “We’ve shown that we are not a novelty. We’re here to stay.”

Adapted from The Straits Times.