Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Bang Saphan Noi Theater - Bang Saphan Noi District, Prajuab Kirikhan Province, Thailand

The story behind the founding of The Bang Saphan Noi Theater, the first ever movie theater to grace the soggy fields of the district it's named for, is a textbook case study of a 20th century Sino-Thai entrepreneurship in rural Thailand.

Starting in the late 19th century and going forward, Chinese migration to Thailand was encouraged by successive reigns of Thailand's ruling Chakri Dynasty. In their push to modernize the country, the Chakri King's invested heavily in canals and, later, trains, opening up new lands to resource extraction, crop extension and the various industries which they spawned. Chinese immigrants often settled along the canal fronts and train lines, jockeying for position to best capitalize off the new modes of transport.

The general pattern would be for a first generation immigrant-entrepreneur to set the stage for future capital accumulation. From there, the second generation would take the helm. In Bang Saphan Noi, young Prayat Phatanaphanich did just that. From tailor, to cloth merchant, to clothier, who bought some land, planted a coconut palm plantation and made a fist full of baht. Profits from one enterprise were reinvested in others, diversifying revenue streams, often resulting in little local empires.

By the early 1980's, the Phatanaphanich's were an established business family in the town. Bang Saphan Noi was also still largely electricity free, as were many parts of rural Thailand at the time. Only the well heeled could afford the luxury. As such, demand for leisure activity after work was done was high. What better thing to do with all that excess cash than bring cinema to your neighbors?

In 1981, Prayat Phatanaphanich and a few other investors built The Bang Saphan Noi Theater. It was erected on land adjacent to his plantation, turning over another adjacent plot for the construction of a Chinese temple and housing for his numerous relatives and employees, some of whom worked in the theater.

Modern vernacular architecture with stars on the cornice. So be the Bang Saphan Noi Theater

Two types of temples. One for ancestor worship, the other for the gods of cinema.

Architecturally, The Bang Saphan Noi Theater is a simple structure, highlighted by the use of ornamental metal stars bolted to the cornice around the sign board. Realistically, there wouldn't have been any need to distinguish the theater any further with a flashy design. Despite that, it's still a fairly imposing structure, tucked away behind the town's main drag. And in this post-stand-alone movie theater era, it would serve as a jaw dropping surprise to anybody who unwittingly chanced upon it. Nobody in their right mind equates small town Thailand with massive movie theaters anymore (except maybe the two or three of you who read this blog regularly).  

Open-air lobby of the Bang Saphan Noi Theater

Ticket window iron work.

Mr. Surin Jinthanaphan standing in the gutted auditorium, where he worked as GM for the duration of the theater's working days.

I was fortunate to come across Mr. Surin Jinthanaphan at his house just next to the dormant movie theater. After a casual chat about his hulking concrete neighbor, Surin revealed that he is a member of Phatanaphanich family and worked as the general manager from start to finish. 

Picking his brain for a half hour or so shed more light on the local nature of the movie theater business in rural Thailand from not so long ago. 

Most theaters in Thailand at the time still relied on the services of professional voice actors do live dubbing for foreign language films. At smaller theaters, a pre-recorded tape of the dubbing session was often supplied rather than pay the high cost of booking the dubber for a live show. Not so for the Bang Saphan Noi Theater, which, despite being a small market, had an in-house dubber by the name of Nahyo, who also resided in the town. 

The 600 seat theater was indeed the central meeting place for just about the entire town until the mid-1990's, when Bang Saphan Noi got wired for full scale electricity. Immediately after that attendance fell, as townsfolk increasingly opted to stay  glued to the TV at home rather than venture out to the theater. The theater closed shortly afterwards and has been vacant ever since.

But in its short operating life, the Bang Saphan Noi Theater was a harbinger of bigger things for a town well below the radar. It's probably safe to say that Bang Saphan Noi's most lively era was during the brief span when it had its very own movie theater.  

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Sirimitr Rama - Ban Grud, Bang Saphan District, Prajuab Kirikhan Province, Thailand

It took an extra three hours longer than normal to get to Ban Grud from Bangkok thanks to the undercarriage of my train catching firing 20 minutes out of the station. Almost 10 hours worth of travel to spend a whopping 6 minutes documenting the local picture house. Sad but true. Maybe I'm losing some my enthusiasm for this work after all these years?

Probably not.

The reality is there was no chance of getting inside this place, the exterior has very little remaining of its original details, and above all else there was an angry dog getting all worked up over my presence. A biter, said some neighbors. Figured I'd get my few shots in, ask a few questions and be on my way.

The lower half of the facade is the only part of the Sirimitr Rama with any remaining detail.

The Sirimitr Rama is indeed pretty bland. Aside from the ticket booth and surrounding veranda area, which still has some cool old detailing, most of the theater's original wooden components have been removed and replaced with a concrete frame and walls. The only reason it's left standing at all is because it has been converted into a swift nesting house, a common adaptation for old movie theaters in coastal Thailand. 

The ticket booth, complete with classic ornamental iron work. On the wall above it reads "Coming Attractions" and "Thanks for coming."

Iron work on ticket booth

A single lotus column supports the former projection room from the veranda below. The lotus column in Thai architecture is a sure sign of an early post-World War Two build. 

In hindsight, the highlight of this little research/photography jaunt today was my stroll down the main commercial street of Ban Grud. A commercial housing stock comprised almost exclusively of two-story wooden shop houses lines both sides of the street. This old world elegance is a nostalgics dream. Even the vinyl sun screens in front of the shops have a classy old look to them. 

Main street in Ban Grud

As I approached the Sirimitr, which is at the far southern end of the main drag, set back a bit from the building line, I noticed an elderly couple sitting in front of their house staring at me. I gave them friendly nod and "hiya doowin?" as I got closer. Then, out of the blue, before I could even get my question out, they gestured for me to walk a bit further, accompanied by the affirmation of "old movie theater." I guess I look like I'm looking for old movie theaters. Maybe they recognized me from TV. Whatever the case, it was kinda freaky. 

The man turned out to be a relative of the owner. He related that the Sirimitr was built in 1961 under the name of the Chalerm Sin Theater, and that the name was changed to Sirimitr when it was purchased by his relative. 

Most importantly, he kept the mean dog at bay while I took my pictures, and was kind enough to drive me down to the little beech front hotel that I'm writing this post from.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The right programming, could equal bright future for Thailand's last movie palace

Endangered species

It's perplexing to think that one of Thailand's most endangered buildings is also one of its most beloved, but such is the dual status held by Bangkok's Scala Theatre - Thailand's last operating movie palace.

The Scala Theatre; little altered since its grand opening in 1969.

Scala's trademark vaulted ceiling and 5-tiered glass orb chandelier. 

Since its grand opening on New Years Eve, 1969, The Scala Theater - referred to locally simply as "Scala" -  has provided a world-class cinema experience to anybody with a couple hours and a bit of Baht to spare. It's also arguably the most architecturally grand movie theater left in all of Southeast Asia, a fact not lost on Thailand’s conservation community. In 2012, the Association of Siamese Architects (Under Royal Patronage) certified the Scala an architecturally significant structure, giving the parent company, Apex, an award for preservation.

The theater's sumptuous modern lobby, featuring a 5-tiered frosted glass chandelier, tapered columns, golden star ceiling medallions and a 10-plus meter horizontal wall relief are some of the highlights of this a one-of-a-kind architectural spectacle. Scala's splendor has helped cement its status not just as a cinephiles' paradise and architectural spectacle, but as a leading Bangkok event space in general. In an area of the city now teaming with glitzy shopping malls, the Scala is a pritine hold out from Thailand's golden age of movie theaters.

Scala's fate rests in the hands of the Property Management Office of Chulalongkorn Univerity - landlord of the theater and surrounding Siam Square neighborhood. In 2012, Chulalongkorn announced plans which called for the demolition of Scala, its less-ornate sister theater, Lido, and the surrounding  three-story shop-house community that comprises the neighborhood. The cleared land would be used to build a series of shopping malls, aimed at driving up revenue for the university.

Immediately following that initial announcement, a chorus opposition erupted across the Thai media, citing Scala's unique architectural merits and its distinction as the last operating stand-alone movie theater in a city once packed with them. In mid-2016, a petition was circulated on-line entitled "Keep Scala" and calling for the theater to be awarded heritage status. It's this level of endearment that the Scala commands.

Sustained public pressure combined with less than ideal economic circumstances has led officials at Chulalongkorn University to respond with a series of lease extensions to the Apex Co.. Otherwise there are no guarantees

Scala's lease expires in 2019.

How to get off the endangered species list

At a quarter of noon on October 15th, The Scala Theater's airy bi-level lobby rang with the din of a large, avid crowd. The assembled mass consisted almost exclusively of Bangkok cinema enthusiasts, casually mingling in anticipation of a one-off screening of "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly," part of a year-long World Class Film series presentation at Scala by the Thai Film Archive.

At noon, the vestibule doors parted and the crowd streamed into the grand auditorium, settling in for the three hour ride through Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Western epic.

As the lights began to dim, the one-thousand seat auditorium appeared to be at about 70% capacity, with the only large swaths of empty seats located in the first few rows closest to the screen. While the opening credits flashed overhead, a dozen or so stragglers scurried to their seats.

On a typical day at the Scala, filling ten-percent of the seats is a struggle. That's not for a lack of devotees to the iconic movie palace. There are plenty of them. The problem is that on most days there are anywhere from 10 to 50 other screens, all located in multiplex theaters across the metropolis, showing the same mainstream movie. Finding enough of a market share to fill 20% of the seats - the break-even point for most movie theaters - is untenable at that rate. Add to the mix the growing use of streaming services like Netflix cutting into theater attendance and the Scala's prospects for profitability seem slim to nil.

But this is where the Thai Film Archive has tapped into something big.

Scala is a movie lovers' movie theater. The kind of place that genuine cinephiles flock to as much for the no-gimmicks movie-watching experience as for the sumptuous atmosphere. Unlike the rest of Bangkok's silver screen, Scala is a stand-alone theater, meaning there's no soulless shopping mall to navigate before you reach the box office. That, in turn, keeps the cinephiles coming out.

There are different degrees of Scala regulars. From die-hards who watch every movie that comes through, to the casual movie fans who are fond of Scala for the cultural capital it brings to Bnagkok, but could take it or leave it as far as a place to watch movies goes.

The common thread tying all Scala fans together, however, is that when a unique film is showing there, they will come out in droves. Case in point, Clint Eastwood blasting away along side Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

It's no coincidence that the Film Archive has been increasing its programming presence at Scala in recent years. In the face of mounting pressure from the landlord to knock the building down, the Film Archive has shown on multiple occasions that the Scala still has the power to pack 'em in.

The key is unique programming. Besides the vintage films programmed by the Film Archive from time to time, I've seen Scala mobbed whenever a highly anticipated film gets first run there, even if it's screening elsewhere in the city.

Like other stand-alone cinema halls that have been readapted to fit contemporary tastes, the Scala exudes class, and would do well if it were programmed thoughtfully like others of its kind. Imagine if Scala were to become the Thai equivalent to San Francisco's Castro Theater, screening double and triple features of classic films on a daily basis. Again, there's no shortage of cinephiles in Bangkok. They're just not being catered to. Do this with the Scala and Bangkok will have a bona fide cinema institution.

A cinephile's delight: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly at the Scala

The difficulty moving forward will be convincing a revenue-hungry university that Scala matters.