A handsome street-side marquee and sign has been welcoming movie-goers to the Prince Theater since 1985.
"Hey Projectionist! Have you been to the Prince Theater in Khon Kaen yet?" has been the most repeated question I've gotten about any one movie theater in Thailand to date. From this common inquiry and the bit of hearsay I've heard about the place, I developed a deranged obsession with wondering about it. In my mind, the Prince took on legendary qualities. It became a theater that absolutely had to be checked out lest my life come to an incomplete close. Well last week I did just that, only to find the Prince stripped of its royal heritage; a dethroned and disemboweled movie theater noble with its guts hanging out.
A year too late and the Prince is no more, currently undergoing a morbid transformation into an apartment building. While climbing through the eviscerated corpse of the old theater, I uncovered bits and pieces of movie memorabilia: a shredded movie poster, piece of a cardboard cut-out from a lobby display, a sliver of a movie ticket and some scraps of brittle, discarded film - the remains of a soon-to-be forgotten world.
The remains of a movie poster in the rubble
The Prince was only 23 years old when it met its untimely death last year. It was likely one of the last stand-alone theaters to get built in Thailand. For those years it was the flagship theater of the Prince Theaters chain - a modest Khon Kaen-based film exhibition company with two other branches in Mahasarakham and Kalasin provinces respectively. After the Prince closed down about a year ago, Prince Theaters moved its Khon Kaen operations to Fairy Plaza, where they reopened in the old Fairy Cineplex - a four-screen multiplex on the mall's top floor. So if by chance you're in Khon Kaen and go to see a movie at the Fairy Cineplex, you're actually watching at the reincarnation of the Prince.
What used to be the Prince's auditorium, complete with terraced seating, is in the process of being split into two levels for apartments.
The woman on the motorbike is Moo, an accountant for Prince Theaters. She's been employed at the company since she graduated from college. If it weren't for Moo, I may never have found out that the old Prince Theater lives on in Fairy Plaza. Otherwise I might be mourning the loss of yet another independent movie theater proprietor. Fortunately the company survives. But trouble is in the air. At the beginning of December the Bangkok-based SF Cinemas chain opened a branch in Khon Kaen's brand new Central Plaza shopping mall. SF, which is the second largest theater chain in the country after Major-EGV, is making its first foray into the Isan movie exhibition market, posing a potential threat to the local brand.
In my most rudimentary Thai, I asked Moo if SF is an enemy of Prince?
"I don't know yet," she replied. "It's still too early to tell. They just opened at the beginning of the month."
"Are you worried about them moving into the Khon Kaen market?" I probed.
"Yeah, we're a little bit worried," she confided. "We've never had to face this kind of competition before. But I think the Khon Kaen market will respond better to our products than what SF exhibits. We play movies that are dubbed in Thai. That's what our distributors (Five Star, Pranakorn Films) supply and that's what the Khon Kaen market demands. SF shows all its foreign films with their original dialogue and Thai subtitles. There's not much of a market for that in Khon Kaen. People here don't like to read movies. SF ticket prices are also about 30 percent higher than ours. There's not a whole lot of big money in Khon Kaen, so that's also to our advantage. Our 90 baht ticket price is more appropriate for the market here. In all," she concluded, "I think we'll be alright"
For the most part, Moo seemed confident that SF's entrance into the local market would not have much of an affect on Prince. I hope she's right. History, however, is not on her side. In the other up-country markets that either Major-EGV or SF have entered, the local theaters have not fared well. All of Nakon Sawan's local operations, for example, have closed since Major opened in the Big C Supercenter. The same goes for Phitsanulok and Udonthani. Here in Chiang Mai, the locally-owned Vista Gad Suan Kaew multiplex (my second home here) hangs on in spite of the Major Cineplex at Airport Plaza shopping center. The Vista Group, however, has since closed and subsequently razed its three stand-alone neighborhood theaters, along with a two-screen theater near Gad Suan Kaew. Chiang Mai's current movie theater geography is as vapid as it's been in 70 years.
As for the Prince @ Fairy Plaza, only time will tell. The Thongrompho brothers, owners of the SF empire, have definitely got some effective marketing strategies for their theaters. In Khon Kaen SF will also have the lugubrious benefit of being in the city's hot new Central shopping mall - a natural crowd drawer. They're likely to be a formidable foe for a small theater company like Prince. Nonetheless, as Moo explained, Prince will have certain natural advantages. And where it is lacking, well, I hope the Prince gets Machiavellian on its new nemesis.
The original Prince Theater, however, is nothing more.