The show goes on

One disadvantage The Projector team struggles with is the cinema's location at Golden Mile Tower. The Golden Bar at The Projector, owned by actor and restaurateur Adam Chen, sells food and drinks that patrons are allowed to take inside the halls. The
The Golden Bar at The Projector, owned by actor and restaurateur Adam Chen, sells food and drinks that patrons are allowed to take inside the halls. PHOTOS: THE PROJECTOR, YEO KAI WEN, JENSEN CHING
One disadvantage The Projector team struggles with is the cinema's location at Golden Mile Tower. The Golden Bar at The Projector, owned by actor and restaurateur Adam Chen, sells food and drinks that patrons are allowed to take inside the halls. The
One disadvantage The Projector team struggles with is the cinema's location at Golden Mile Tower.PHOTOS: THE PROJECTOR, YEO KAI WEN, JENSEN CHING
The Projector hosting events such as the U Symposium market.
The Projector hosting events such as the U Symposium market.PHOTOS: THE PROJECTOR, YEO KAI WEN, JENSEN CHING
The Projector hosting events such a concert by local band Pleasantry.
The Projector hosting events such a concert by local band Pleasantry.PHOTOS: THE PROJECTOR, YEO KAI WEN, JENSEN CHING

As arthouse cinema The Projector celebrates its eighth month in business, it looks to be in the pink of health. It screens a diverse range of movies, from the edgy and abstract to the fun and trashy.

It has hosted film festivals, corporate and private events and has a growing presence on social media.

Fans hail it as the epitome of an indie arts space because it combines a handmade, mom-and-pop feel with a sophisticated sense of curation in food, decor and film programming.

A handwritten sign saying "hold your horsies" is stuck on a door to hold back waiting ticket-holders and the ticket "booth" is a wobbly desk cobbled from scrap wood.

That is placed next to a bar-bistro serving draft beer, coldpressed juices and gluten-free pizza.

 

As if on cue, just after Life speaks to its three young managers, a tourist walks into the foyer to gawk and chat with someone in charge, because that is what you do at a small family attraction: You ask for a guided tour.

Manager and co-founder Sharon Tan, 30, is used to rubberneckers and hipsters coming by to chat, snap Instagram selfies of the retrochic foyer, bar area and circular staircase, then leave without spending a cent, but she says she does not mind. She enjoys spreading the message of alternative cinema.

That message seems to be gaining traction. Since it opened officially in January following a successful Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign raising US$55,000 (S$77,000) from 464 supporters over two months, its slate has grown from zero to 16 films this month. Titles run the gamut in country of origin, date and genre. It has given local films such as Unlucky Plaza (2014) a second and much longer run than commercial venues, while giving acclaimed sci-fi work Ex Machina (2015) its Singapore premiere.

More than 2,000 people follow its Instagram photos, while its Facebook page has close to 8,000 followers. Its mailing list has more than 8,000 addresses.

It screens films twice on weekdays and up to eight times a day on weekends, combined, for its two halls. While declining to state audience figures for the 230-seat Green Room and smaller 180-seat Redrum during standard screenings, Ms Tan says special events, such as film festivals, cosplay and audience participation nights, when fans talk to directors, are usually sold out.

There is just enough money coming in from ticket sales and events-hosting to cover its largest expense - rent - and running costs including the salaries of four fulltime employees. For now, operations run at break-even without injections of cash from outside sources.

Summing up the overall health of the enterprise, Ms Tan says: "We are optimistic, but also realistic."

That practical perspective is necessary. Arthouse cinemas have a dismal history in Singapore (see other story). From the 1990s, halls dedicated to non-mainstream films have been felled by rents and lack of interest from filmgoers.

One burden that The Projector team struggles with is the cinema's location at Golden Mile Tower, at the wrong end of Beach Road, closer to Kallang than to Raffles City. In spite of the Nicoll Highway MRT station being a five-minute walk away, Ms Tan and her team have to deal with the fogging of the Singaporean brain when it comes to entertainment zones outside major shopping areas. "People think of the building as far away from the civilised world," she says.

Then there are people confusing Golden Mile Tower with the neighbouring Golden Mile Complex, or turning up their noses at the working-class nature of the neighbourhood, marked by terminals for Malaysia-bound buses, businesses serving Thai workers, steamboat restaurants and karaoke and hostess bars.

Assistant programmer Michelle Goh, 29, notes that once most people get past their biases, they are happier for it.

"A lot of people like that you don't get a 'mall experience' here. It's not five storeys of the same shops. There is a lot to discover. It's a nice area," she says.

The word "hipster" pops out when The Projector is talked about, mainly due to its design-centric approach - its founders, after all, come from urban development specialists Pocket Projects and design practice Farm. But the management team dislikes that word.

Mr Gavin Low, 41, director of independent film distributor Luna Films, consults on programming at The Projector. He says each film attracts its own crowd, so not everyone who comes is young, affluent and trendy.

The Iranian mock-documentary Taxi Tehran (2015) by dissident film-maker Jafar Panahi attracted young and old, local and expatriate, he says. Ms Goh adds that special events, such as the recent Star Wars retrospective, drew families with children.

American Pat Weisel, 91, has been a regular at The Projector since June. She dismisses the idea that its location is less than ideal. "I take the No. 16 bus from my home in Joo Chiat, get off at Nicoll Highway and walk and there I am."

The film buff, who moved to Singapore 14 years ago to be closer to her grandchildren, is glad to have a place where she can discover new works, complementing what she finds at local film festivals and DVDs borrowed from the library@esplanade.

The retired social worker and realtor remembers how the site occupied by The Projector was once Golden Cinema, which sometimes screened arthouse films. She remembers watching FrenchAustrian erotic thriller The Piano Teacher (2001) there. The cinema, then already well into its decline, "was so seedy and there were these weird-looking characters there", she says, laughing.

She also enjoys the reasonably priced food and drinks at the Golden Bar bistro in the foyer. Its menu includes scones ($4.90), nachos ($7.50) and pizza ($15.90) and drinks such as coffee and soda ($3.50) and wine ($7).

That is one factor The Projector has in its favour: Besides having a licensed bar-bistro, The Golden Bar, owned by actor-restaurateur Adam Chen, patrons are allowed to carry on munching inside the hall.

These days, the revived space hosts events that range from a PlayStation game launch to fund-raising rock concerts (hosted by and for local band Pleasantry) and graduation parties for pole-dance students (complete with a portable pole).

Civic group Singapore Advocacy Awards last month held a public education panel discussion, Deliberating The Freedom Of Expression In Singapore. The ticketed event ($35 each) sold out the 230-seat Green Room.

Civil society activist Constance Singam, who helped organise the event, admires the power of The Projector's reach: Thanks to its mailing list and social media presence, the event attracted new faces who would not have known about the event otherwise.

"Finding a venue in Singapore is problematic. There are not enough spaces, especially for civil societies, and we don't have the money," she says, and The Projector fills a need for affordable venues.

Mr Zhang Wenjie, 40, director of the Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF), says the retro look of the site is part of The Projector's brand and a factor that supports its continued health.

The SGIFF last year used The Projector as one of its venues shortly before the cinema launched officially.

Mr Zhang says: "It has a clear identity, with clear aesthetic considerations. Its website, how the people behind it communicate... they have a brand and that is important."

That individuality gives The Projector an advantage over arthouse ventures started by the big chains, such as Cathay or GV.

But most importantly, it has passionate founders and a management crew who are in it because they love cinema.

Sometimes, it takes an amateur to succeed because they do not know they are supposed to fail.

"If they had more business savvy, if they had run theatres as employees of the big chains, they would have done the maths and not have started at all," Mr Zhang says.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2015, with the headline 'The show goes on'. Print Edition | Subscribe