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Why cinemas aren’t going away, according to Golden Village CEO Clara Cheo

In the era of Netflix and video-streaming services, cinemas still hold sway.

Clara Cheo, 54, came of age at a time when the concept of the “blockbuster” was just being invented. As a teenager, she queued for hours round the block for tickets to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977). Both movies introduced the formula for heavily-hyped, sensational “blockbusters” that appealed to broad-based audiences, broke box-office records and guaranteed sequels.

Prior to their successes, top-grossing movies were critically-acclaimed titles such as A Clockwork Orange (1971), The Godfather (1972) and Chinatown (1974) – serious dramas largely free of special effects. But Jaws and Star Wars borrowed the low-brow, fantasy storylines of comic books and afterschool specials to give edge-of-your-seat entertainment that appealed to the 8-, 18- and 80-year-olds. They were the cinematic equivalent of rollercoaster rides.

Fast forward 40 years and the blockbuster today is still cinema’s best hope of competing against the Internet. Much has been made about how Netflix, YouTube and piracy are undermining the cinemas by keeping people at home. But superhero movies – with their spectacular effects-laden action best experienced on the big screen – are reversing that trend to boost the revenues of cinema chains such as Golden Village (GV) which Ms Cheo heads.

GV’s box-office tally for 2018 was S$93 million, higher than the S$67 million of 2008. A large portion of it comes from superhero movies such as Black Panther and Aquaman. This year, Avengers: Endgame (2019) grossed close to S$20 million in Singapore, much higher than the S$16.2 million earned by its previous instalment Avengers: Infinity War (2018). Captain Marvel and Spider-Man: Far From Home are also among 2019’s biggest hits.

But commercial realities aside, what is there for cinema-goers who’ve gotten a little tired of superheroes? Can cineplexes satisfy broader appetites? Or are more discriminating viewers resigned to catching indie dramas only at The Projector? On the eve of opening GV’s latest cineplex at Funan, Ms Cheo fields some questions.

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Funan prides itself on being at the edge of tech. How does GV’s new Funan multiplex live up to that aspiration? 

Whenever we build a new cinema, we try to push the boundaries of what a traditional cinema might offer. For this development, we’ve created four virtual reality pods in the foyer that let you put on these VR goggles to transport you into the virtual world of games and entertainment. GV Funan also the third GV multiplex to feature the latest generation of all-laser movie projectors after GV Paya Lebar and GV Bedok. But unlike these two, GV Funan is located in town so it can play R21 films (such as Fifty Shades Of Grey) which our multiplexes in the heartlands cannot. We also have this IGV app that lets you order food and drinks while you’re on your way to the cinema, so the food will be instantly ready and piping-hot when you arrive to take it with you into the cinema. Also, many of the seats in GV Funan are affordable premium seats designed to appeal to the CBD crowd.

There has been many an article predicting the demise of cinemas because of the Internet. But your numbers are looking well. You have 14 cineplexes today compared to nine in 2009 and 1999; 113 screens compared to 66 in 2009 and 51 in 1999, and 16,000 seats compared to 12,000 in 2009 and 10,000 in 1999. 

Yes, the movie industry has been resilient and Hollywood has been very creative in facing the competition. About 10 years ago, the entire box-office for Singapore was about S$150 million. But today it’s close to S$200 million. It goes to prove that with certain movies, nothing beats a big screen experience. Superhero movies are, of course, very popular. But Hollywood has been careful to produce other kinds of entertainment as well. That’s why we’re seeing the rise of musicals (Bohemian Rhapsody, Rocketman, A Star Is Born), live action versions of Disney cartoons (Aladdin, The Lion King, Dumbo) as well as the greater diversity of superheroes in terms of gender and race (Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Captain Marvel). For our part, we remain attentive to audience demand for independent films outside of these Hollywood templates. For instance, we recently opened Parasite, the Korean drama by Bong Joon-Ho that won the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It’s not a mainstream Hollywood film but it has its own audience. Last year when we showed Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters, the Japanese winner of the Palme d’Or of 2018 Cannes, it went on to gross close to S$200,000. So we’re hoping that the Parasite would double that figure because it’s more accessible than Shoplifters. We also want to cater to minority communities, such as the LGBTQ community. This is the 11th year we’re holding the Love & Pride Film Festival which showcases LGBTQ movies dealing with issues such as identity, love, community and belonging. This is one festival that always runs into censorship issues, but we persevere anyway.

If the industry is doing well in coping with disruption, why then has there been a lot of publicised anxiety about the fate of movies and cinemas? 

Speaking from GV’s point of view only, we do face challenges. But the challenges we face are perhaps no different from any other industry here. And that’s to do with the declining birthrate and aging population. These demographic issues will have a major impact on our business in the long run, as traditionally about half of our audiences are youths below 22. So that’s a challenge that will require new solutions.

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From a policy standpoint, are there issues you’re grappling with?

Yes, absolutely. One of the things we wish the Government could look into is censorship. It doesn’t make sense to still censor certain things in the age of the Internet. Language censorship, for instance. People today are able to watch any show in its original language online. So why shouldn’t Singaporeans be able to watch, say, a Hong Kong film in its original Cantonese in cinemas? There are also certain forms of censorship that need a rethink. For instance, Love, Simon, a gay teenage drama which got an R21 rating in Singapore when it had a much lower rating elsewhere (PG13 in the Philippines and the US, and PG15 in South Korea). We know a lot of teenagers here wanted to see it but couldn’t – so they resorted to downloading the movie illegally instead. Now Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite has also gotten the M18 rating for a lovemaking scene involving a pair of fully-clothed husband-and-wife characters. It’s certainly not pornographic or anything. So we don’t understand why it got that rating. All we know is that movie buffs under the age of 18 will again find ways to circumvent this by illegally downloading and streaming this acclaimed film. Meanwhile, many people in the heartlands couldn’t watch Fifty Shades Of Grey in the cinemas near their home because heartland cinemas aren’t allowed to show R21 films, so they stay home and stream it from their media box…  There is very little censorship on the Internet, so why is the cinema industry subject to such strict regulations? All we’re asking for is that the playing field be levelled so that the cinema industry can compete on the same terms as the Internet.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.