Friday, July 18, 2014

Memoirs of a Movie Theater Maestro

Mr. Chalong Praditsuwan stood out in my mind as one of the more thoughtful characters I had encountered while researching Thailand's stand-alone movie theaters. Having once been at the helm of entertainment in his home town of Taphan Hin, Phichit, Chalong knew all the ins and outs of the movie industry in Thailand, past and present, including the societal shifts that had rendered his business lifeless.

He was also in possession of one of the most affable personalities out there, a trait, I surmised, that would lend itself exactingly to the making of a short documentary about Thailand's movie-going past.

A return visit to his movie theater-turned-private home after more than four years proved me correct. Here's the outcome of that meeting.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

"The Architecture of Dreams" Part 2

"I've always loved movie theater architecture. Well, maybe not always, but at least since the early 80's. Since I bought "Architectures de Cinemas," by Francis Lacloche (Editions du Moniteur, 1981). In those days I was living in Paris, working in some architectural office, I saw many old cinemas closing down one after the other. I got myself some old 1960's movie programs and spent many weekends looking for these lost, closed-down-but-maybe-still-there cinemas anywhere I went. I was feeling like some kind of urban archaeologist, trying to find a forgotten Egyptian temple in a deserted suburban street.
Then came 1990, and for some reason I had the opportunity to quit my job, my flat and everything, and spend a long time travelling around the world. I came back 8 months later with a suitcase foll of sketch books, souvenirs and slides. Cinema slides, of course.
There are kinds of cinemas, but you can always recognize a movie theater anywhere in the world, even without any movie posters of the facade. Why? Because they all have something special. Something about adventures, love, fantasy. Something about dreams. It's the architecture of dreams."
Philippe Doro

The Cinemas of Thailand

The Saeng Tawan Theater, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The Tippanetr Rama, Chiang Mai, Thailand

The Hong Rama, Sukhothai, Thailand

The Malai Rama - Lopburi, Thailand

Marquee of the Chalerm Rath Theater - Khon Kaen, Thailand

The Sala Chalerm Krung - Bangkok, Thailand

The Paradise Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

The Capitol Theater - Bangkok, Thailand

Hat Yai Plaza - Hat Yai, Songkla Province, Thailand

Friday, June 27, 2014

"The Architecture of Dreams"

When French illustrator Philippe Doro completed his around-the-world journey in 1990, he returned to his Parisian abode with a vast photographic record of stand-alone movie theaters. Of particular interest to this archive, two of his stopovers happened to be in Southeast Asian countries - namely Malaysia and Thailand. 

A few weeks ago, Mr. Doro reached out to the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project with an offer to share his Southeast Asian cinema photos. What he forwarded along is nothing short of an ocular gold mine. A few dozen vivid shots of elegant mid and early 20th century movie theaters just before their fall from grace. 

To be sure, a good number of the Thai theaters in his collection are no longer in existence. There's little reason to doubt that the same isn't true for the Malaysian ones. Future expeditions by the SEAMTP will, hopefully, be able to answer that question.

In the mean time, feast your eyes on good Philippe's collection of Malaysian movie theaters c. 1990. And check out his blog on the architecture of Brussels when you're finished. 

The Cinemas of Malaysia

Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia

The Rex

The Majestic

Kota Bharu, Kelantan, Malaysia

The Lido

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

The Capitol

The Cathay

The Coliseum

The Federal

The Odeon

The Pavilion

Kuala Terengganu, Terengganu, Malaysia

The Rex

Malacca, Malaysia

The Capitol

The Federal

Penang, Malaysia

The Star

The Wembley

Rawang, Selangor, Malaysia

The Rex

The Cinemas of Thailand, coming soon............

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Celluloid Economics: Why Thailand should take a cue from Singapore and restore its old movie theaters

This article appeared in the Bangkok Post on May 13th of this year.

"A Singapore-based development firm is making that city the first in Southeast Asia to undertake the full restoration of a historic downtown movie theatre. Meanwhile in Myanmar, one of the region's oldest operating stand-alone cinemas will undergo restoration.  

The Capitol Theatre - Singapore
Renovations to Singapore’s iconic Capitol Theatre (closed since 1998) are due to be complete in early 2015, paving the way for it to reclaim its erstwhile title as the city-state’s premiere destination for cinema entertainment. 
The renovations are part of an estimated 1.1 billion dollar (29 billion baht) mega-project that will also include a hotel, shopping center and residential units. The single screen Capitol will serve as the anchor of the development, a concept which marks a stark departure from the norm when it comes to seemingly outmoded stand-alone movie theatres in Southeast Asia. 
Rather than following the standard pattern of demolishing an exquisite movie palace in order to make way for a new development, Capitol Investment Holdings, the project’s developer, has smartly opted to allocate S30 million of the total budget to breathe new life into the historic theatre. 
If Singaporean developers are willing to invest tens of millions of dollars to revive an 85-year-old single-screen movie theatre, perhaps it’s time for planners and developers in Thailand to begin rethinking the fate of the country’s own historic movie theatres. Nationwide, there are a number of viable candidates. 
Bangkok alone counts three historic movie theatres that, if properly preserved, would serve the city as valuable sources of cultural capital for years to come.  Regrettably, all three are either under threat from demolition by neglect, or from redevelopment plans.   
Two of the three – the Scala and the Lido theatres, both nestled in Siam Square – are currently in operation. The pair are run and maintained to world-class standards by their original owner-operator, Apex Theatres, which is now owned by Ms. Nanta Tansacha, daughter of company founder Pisit Tansacha.  

The Scala Theatre - Bangkok

The Lido Theatre - Bangkok
Despite being two of the most beloved cinematic institutions in the country and able to count as their patrons most of Thailand’s artistic elite, both the Scala and Lido are at risk of being lost to demolition. Pending loss of the theatres comes at the behest of Chulalongkorn University, landlord of all of Siam Square, which is seeking to increase its revenue by replacing all existing structures in the district with a series of shopping malls.  
The Scala is arguably the most luxurious movie theatre in all of Southeast Asia, a fact not lost on Thailand’s architectural preservation community. In 2012, the Association of Siamese Architects certified the Scala an architecturally significant structure.  Its sumptuous modern lobby, featuring a 5-tiered frosted glass chandelier, tapered columns, golden star ceiling medallions and a 10m horizontal wall relief are some of the highlights of this a one-of-a-kind architectural spectacle. 
The Lido, unfortunately, bears much fewer distinctions, having lost many of its original architectural features to a fire in the early 1990’s. It is nonetheless a valuable cultural asset in the heart of the city, especially when coupled with the Scala. 
The third Bangkok movie theatre that is under threat is the Sala Chalerm Thani, sometimes known as the Nang Loeng Theatre.  

The Sala Chalerm Thani Theatre - Bangkok

Dating to 1918, the Sala Chalerm Thani is one of only several theaters left in Thailand dating from the earliest years of movie-going. Its wooden walls and timber frame, combined with its age, endow it with unrivaled historical worth.  
Tentative plans to restore the Sala Chalerm Thani by its landlord, the Crown Property Bureau, have been posted on the cinema’s fa├žade for several years now, but a definitive time frame has yet to be given. Should restoration occur, however, and the theatre is once again made a venue for film, it could be rightfully billed as the oldest active, stand-alone movie theatre in all of Asia.  
Outside of Bangkok, a handful of other elegant but unused stand-alone movie theatres have great restorative potential.  
In Chiang Mai, the once-grand Sang Tawan Theatre – featuring an intricate terra cotta mosaic depicting traditional northern Thai village life on its facade – looms over one of the city’s most important intersections. Though it has been closed for more than 10 years, a restored and active Sang Tawan could do wonders for a section of the city that’s full of important socio-cultural resources, yet sorely in need of an anchor institution.  

The Sang Tawan Theatre - Chiang Mai
Similarly, in the city of Udon Thani – one of northeast Thailand’s economic hubs – the long-abandoned Vista Theatre stands at a prominent corner directly across from that city’s largest public park. 

The Vista Theatre - Udon Thani
In sum, each of these sidelined theatres represents a golden opportunity to transform the cities or neighborhoods in which they stand.  
Admittedly, reincorporating an old movie theatre into a contemporary city economy is no simple task. Yet for a city to have the means to reach back into its past and make a forlorn artifact not only relevant again, but a contributing part of contemporary society, shows vision and know-how on the part of local leaders.
Singapore is achieving this via restoration of the Capitol Theatre. 
Singapore might seem like an obvious place for the restoration of an old cinema to occur. After all, it is a high-income city-state that can comfortably afford to undertake such a project. But that rationale falls short if one considers the restoration of the 80-plus year-old Waziya Cinema soon to commence in Yangon, Myanmar. The latter is unquestionably not a high-income country, yet planners in Yangon have smartly identified the invaluable cultural capital bound-up in historic movie theatres. The Waziya is one of the oldest active stand-alone cinemas in Southeast Asia. It's a crowning gem of Yangon's Cinema Row, a movie theater district that in recent years has been modernized and replaced by buildings.   
There is much to be gained through preserving select parts of the past, and cinemas are no exception. The revival and preservation of stand-alone movie theatres have indeed proven beneficial to the cultural and economic life of surrounding neighbourhoods. Numerous examples from cities around the world attest to that.  
Now Singapore is taking the lead regionally.  
Restoration of the Capitol Theatre should serve as a precedent for cinema preservation in Thailand and all of ASEAN."

Friday, May 30, 2014

The Ma Win Rama - Ban Rai Village, Sukhothai, Thailand

About seven kilometers outside of Sukhothai City is the village of Ban Rai. Like many such villages in the lower north of Thailand, Ban Rai owes its existence to its past as a trading hub for agricultural goods. The local market provided the gravity that pulled farmers and farm hands in from the surrounding fields. A town, in all its bucolic modesty, sprang up around it. 

In the middle decades of the 20th century, the jungles of upper Thailand were being felled to make way for the expansion of market-based agriculture. On account of that, local business entrepreneurs who dealt in agricultural products and services tended to prosper from the increased production, which became known the world over as the "Green Revolution." 

In 1972, the owner of the Ban Rai's market, having profited handsomely from Green Revolution expansion, decided to diversify his business holdings. With a high volume of foot traffic already in place, he surmised that building a movie theater on the grounds of his market would be a natural fit. Similar market place-movie theater combinations were being developed across Thailand in response to an increased appetite for film among the populous. 

Home electrification in rural Thailand, it should be stated, had yet to become widespread by the early 1970's. If villagers living in the vicinity of Ban Rai wanted a dose of modern entertainment they would have to travel all the way to Sukhothai City for a movie theater. Television and other technologies predicated on having an electrical source were not yet an option for most. Opening a theater in Ban Rai thus made practical sense. 

Enter the Ma Win Rama.

The Ma Win Rama: A simple yet sleek and elegant mid-century Thai movie theater. It's place white facade subtly accented by its name in red, plaster letters on its peak. 

For the first 20 years of its existence, the Ma Win Rama was predictably successful. To nearby villagers, it was the most immediate entertainment venue; one of the only local spaces that offered a window into a another world, or a fictitious refection of their own. 

But as houses got wired for electricity, and different mediums for viewing movies became more widespread, the Ma Win Rama began to lose customers, if not its standing as an important community gathering point.

In the mid-1990's the theater was closed. The owner, however, invested in a tour bus company which now connects Sukhothai with points near and far. Win Tour is its name. 

Veranda-inspired lobby area, a common signature of many Thai stand-alones.

Ticket booth

Wooden, bi-fold doors, nailed shut.

Plaster signage

For a more detailed, if not entertaining background on the Ma Win Rama, please watch the short documentary below:

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Last chance for Chiang Mai to restore a movie palace

The May issue of Chiang Mai Citylife magazine features the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project. Much of article/interview is centered around Chiang Mai's last remaining stand-alone and what to do with it.

The full story can be found below:
"When approaching the intersection of Chang Klan and Sri Donchai Roads, a sense of loss pervades. Here on the Southeast corner of this busy intersection rests the colossal of Chiang Mai cinemas, rotting mercilessly. Bound like a sedated hostage in the cheapness of billboards and advertisements, the sole surviving relic of Chiang Mai's movie-going glory days awaits an undetermined, likely grim fate," writes Phil Joblan in a post on his blog, The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project, about the now decrepit Sang Tawan Theatre in Chiang Mai.

The language Joblan uses to write about the Sang Tawan Theatre can only be described as intense and despairing. He feels a special connection to movie theatres, especially those (like the Sang Tawan), that were once centres of community and culture, but are now nothing more than abandoned mammoths of a time long forgotten. Each post features a different Southeast Asian stand-alone movie theatre, complete with the theatre's history, photos and musings about its future. Unfortunately, for many of the theatres, Joblan can only imagine futures of destruction and dust, of strip malls and duplexes.

But his project is not merely about documenting sadness. Rather, Joblan hopes that his work might help to inspire change and preservation. In a presentation he gave recently at the Alliance Francaise in Chiang Mai, he shared photographs from some of his favourite movie theatres throughout Southeast Asia and spoke profusely about the need to find sustainable solutions to ensure that these relics of architectural ingenuity and creativity don't fall to rubble under the weight of apathy and misunderstanding.

"Thailand is regularly losing good architecture," wrote Joblan in his most recent blog post. "In particular, it is regularly losing good mid-20th century modern architecture, the same time period corresponding with a boom in movie theatre construction." He attributes much of this loss to major corporations gobbling up land occupied by historic movie theatres so that they might build chain restaurants and strip malls, a fact that he, most understandably, thinks is tragic. Even Bangkok's famously gorgeous Scala Theatre, the last active stand-alone theatre in all of Thailand - which recently won an award for architectural significance from the Association of Siamese Architects - has had its land bought up by ThaiBev Co., the company that produces Beer Chang and Mekong Whiskey.  

Though Jablon has since returned  home to the United States for the summer, he agreed to answer some questions about the importance of stand-alone movie theatres in Thailand and the history of movie-going in Chiang Mai, as well as to give some advice to our community about how to protect the Sang Tawan Theatre, the last of the great Chiang Mai stand-alone theatres, which we could lose at any moment.

Citylife: What led you to start The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project?

Phil Jablon: The discovery of a rustic old stand-alone movie theatre in Chiang Mai. Prior to finding that theatre - the Tippanet Theatre - my only knowledge of movie theatres in Chiang Mai were the multiplexes in the two existing shopping malls. 

By the time I got around to going to see a movie at the Tippanet, however, it had been demolished. It was then that it occurred to me that this was the likely fate of stand-alone movie theatres across Thailand. So I made up my mind that I would document them for posterity's sake. 

Citylife: What is it about movie theatres in particular that captivates you?

Phil Jablon: There are numerous aspects about these old movie theatres that are remarkable. First of all, the geography of the stand-alone movie theatres of yesteryear is much more human in scale than the multiplex theatres that dominate today. The former were usually built in town centres, or in densely populated outlying districts. Whether facing onto a throughway or tucked away within a plaza, they enliven the street with their architecture and the way people use them.

For instance, when a large crowd attends a movie in a mall cineplex, they drive into the parking garage and then back out when they're done. They never set foot on the street, which in turn makes the street feel lifeless. On the other hand, when a large crowd attends a movie at a stand-alone theatre, the surrounding area benefits from a flurry in foot traffic. There's something magical about that.

Citylife: Why is it important to save these stand-alone theatres? What do they offer that sets them apart from mall cineplexes?

Phil Jablon: The stand-alones were built solely for the purpose of watching movies. Cinema, we have to remember, is the most dynamic art form. The fact that there were once grand buildings where entire communities congregated for the shared experience of watching movies speaks volumes to this fact. Ensuring that a select few old theatres are preserved is good for the legacy, economy and vitality of the societies that claim them. 

Citylife: The last of these great stand-alone theatres in Chiang Mai is the Sang Tawan Theatre. What makes this theatre special and important?

Phil Jablon: Truthfully, the most important thing about the Sang Tawan is that it's Chiang Mai's only remaining stand-alone movie theatre, which means that it represents the last chance for the city to reach back and salvage a piece of its cultural history.

That aside, it has a beautiful terra cotta mosaic on the facade depicting northern Thai village life. Sadly, that is now completely covered up by a huge billboard bolted to the facade.

The Sang Tawan is also part of the legacy of Chiang Mai's royal household, as the builder was Jao Chai Suriwong Na Chieng Mai. I feel that that fact adds to the sociocultural importance of the theatre.

Citylife: What is the history of movie-going like in Chiang Mai?

Phil Jablon: Chiang Mai's first permanent movie theatre opened in 1922, the same year the train line reached the city. The theatre was called the Patthanakorn and it was located near the Night Bazaar. Sometime in the 1940s, the Patthanakorn was sold and renamed the Sri Wiang Theatre - later to become the Wiang Ping - before it was demolished in the early 1970s.

By the mid-1970s there were about 13 movie theatres throughout Chiang Mai, representing just about every densely populated area of the city. Two of those theatres - the Sri Visan and the Chintatsanee - were owned by the father of current Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra.

The largest theatre magnate in the city, however, was Jao Chai Suriwong Na Chieng Mai. He built four theatres throughout the city, including the Suriwong, Suriyong, Suriya and the Sang Tawan theatres, the last of which is still standing. at the intersection of Chang Klan and Sri Donchai Roads.

Citylife: A lot of your work focuses on finding sustainable ways to renovate these abandoned theatres. What are some feasible, sustainable solutions for the Sang Tawan Theatre in Chiang Mai?

Phil Jablon: Ideally, it will be turned into a mixed-use venue, able to accommodate both film and live events, be it concerts, speaking engagements or plays. With the right cooperation, it might also have space for a small museum on the history of film in Northern Thailand. 

The location of the Sang Tawan makes all this feasible. It's right in the centre of the densest concentration of hotels in the city, which would make it highly accessible to the tourist market. Imagine coming to Chiang Mai, staying at a gorgeous hotel like the Anantara or the Shangri-La, and being able to enjoy a classic Thai film in a restored movie palace! 

If the greater Chiang Mai community has any interest in being home to a rare and prestigious structure in the form of a revived stand-alone movie theatre, then this is the last chance to do so. Once it's common knowledge that there's a beautiful old movie theatre slowly rotting at one of the most important commercial/cultural intersections in the city, the advocacy stage must begin, building a case for why this structure should be invested in. Given, this is going to be an expensive project. Returning old movie theatres to their original splendour always is. But the return in the form of cultural capital for Chiang Mai and greater Thailand would be incalculable. Think of it like this: If the Sang Tawan is revived, it would mark the first time in the history of Thailand that a stand-alone movie theatre was brought back from a state of near-abandonment. That would be something to be proud of!

Citylife: Thai PBS recently did an excellent video piece on The Southeast Asia Movie Theatre Project - how else are you aiming to promote your research? A gallery exhibition or a documentary, perhaps?

Phil Jablon: Yes, I am currently exploring options for making a mini-series about Thailand's old movie theatres. If this comes to fruition, it will air on Thai TV. The other upcoming event is a photo exhibition of my work at the Khum Chao Burirat House on Ratchadamneon Road. That will be held in cooperation with the Faculty of Architecture at Chiang Mai University and take place towards the end of the year. It's my secret hope that that exhibition will mark the beginning of a campaign to restore the Sang Tawan Theatre. 

While not focused exclusively on movie theatres, the Thai Film Archive in Salaya does have some material on the subject, including a Thai film museum containing some artefacts from old movie theatres. The Film Archive is, however, a fabulous resource for learning about another extremely understudied aspect of Thai culture - Thai cinema. They regularly show old movies at their Sri Salaya Theatre, many of which they possess the lone existing print of. They also transfer some old Thai films onto DVD for sale.
by Cody Gohl 

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Thana Rungrot Rama Revisited

In the working life of a Thai stand-alone movie theater, 5 years can amount to a very long time. All the more so in these twilight years of the structural-type. If maintenance costs, or a dwindling customer base don't do it in, the necessity of keeping up with the times likely will. 

5 years ago, digital projection was just a rumor circulating through the movie exhibition industry. Theaters which failed to integrate the costly new technology, the thinking went, would soon find themselves short of films and short of business. "Out of business" would be the next and final stage. 

Those predictions have become reality for many Thai stand-alones over the last 5 years. Metropolitan Bangkok, for one, went from having about 10 stand-alone double-feature theaters to zero during that span. In the provinces, too, their numbers have fallen to lows not seen since the late 1920's. 

In the 5 years since the Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project first surveyed the Thai north, the sum of active stand-alone movie theaters has been halved from 2 down to 1. The lone survivor hangs on thanks to a life-saving upgrade to digital projection. For a movie theater, that's the equivalent of having a heart transplant. 

Uttaradit's Thana Rungrot Rama is the only active stand-alone movie theater left in northern Thailand.

While favorable to movie lovers in Uttaradit, it's not a coincidence that the Thana Rungrot Rama was given the digital upgrade. Thana, the company that owns the theater, is the distribution arm of Phranakorn Films, one of Thailand's main production companies. Thana is also the main movie distributor for the central and northern regions of the country.

Given that there are virtually no independent movie exhibitors left in northern Thailand other than Thana (not counting the national chains, Major Cineplex and SF Cinema) going digital was a natural investment. Should the Thana Rungrot Rama fail, it could easily be sold off and the expensive projection equipment installed in one of the company's other theaters.

Technics aside, the old theater seems to be doing just fine. About 50 people turned out for an 8:00 PM screening of the Thai coming of age film Timeline. If this is an average size crowd, then it's no wonder Thana opted to install digital projection. For a small, up-country market like Uttaradit, 50 ticket sales for a single screening is not bad at all.

Open-air lobby

Like almost all Thai movie theaters built in the middle decades of last century, the entrance to the Thana Rungrot Rama's lobby area is without exterior walls. This design is in harmony with the local climate, allowing the ever-warm tropical air to circulate freely, without need for costly air-conditioning. 

Lobby accouterments and advertisements. 

Thai tradition dictates that nothing can be higher up on a given wall than pictures of the King and Queen.

2014 marks the 40th birthday of the Thana Rungrot Rama. This, however, is the first year that the theater will stand as the sole surviving stand-alone movie theater in northern Thailand. But with the profiles of these cultural institutions gradually on the rise, perhaps one of the many dormant theaters in the north will be resurrected. 

Stranger things have happened.