Tough luck for arthouse cinemas in Singapore

Sinema Old School at Mount Sophia closed in 2012, after a run of five years, when its lease ran out.
Sinema Old School at Mount Sophia closed in 2012, after a run of five years, when its lease ran out.TNP FILE PHOTO

Arthouse cinemas in Singapore have had to weather tough odds. Their enemies are high rents, online viewing - both legal and illegal - high marketing costs and unappealing locations forced on them by their low-profit margins. These are the same obstacles faced by any arts group.

So far, only rooms within large, multi-purpose venues, such as the National Museum's Cinematheque or The Arts House's Screening Room, have had staying power. Both venues are part of larger organisations that receive public funding.

The commercial arthouse trend began in 1990 with the opening of Cathay's The Picturehouse. The then new Restricted (Artistic) category of film (eventually amended to R21) and higher ticket prices for arthouse imports drew competitors.

Shaw's Jade Classics quickly followed in 1991 and Golden Village's Cinema Europa came on stream at GV VivoCity in 2006.

Later, in 2007, the independent entity Sinema Old School at Mount Sophia launched.

Then, Internet-driven piracy, online DVD sales, the growth of cable movie channels, the availability of arthouse DVDs at the National Library and the numerous themed and national film festivals held each year cannibalised arthouse tickets sales.

Film fans did not have to wait to watch the Cannes or Sundance award-winners, either - there were ways of getting around roadblocks.

By 2011, The Picturehouse hall was converted to a commercial one and has since existed only as an arthouse-focused brand name, The Picturehouse Selection.

After five years in operation, the cinemas at Shaw Towers on Beach Road, including Jade Classics, were sold to a consortium which converted all spaces into commercial cinemas.

GV's Cinema Europa appears to have been quietly phased out: It no longer exists as a venue on GV VivoCity listings online.

Sinema Old School at Mount Sophia closed in 2012 when its lease ran out. It now exists as a brand name and has partnered Singapore's largest cinema chain, GV, to hold screenings of alternative films.

But the demise of those venues does not mean there are no arthouse films screened here. The major chains now screen these works without the need to slap on the "arthouse" label which, in recent years, has lost its prestige value and may in fact deter those who associate it with dullness and pretension.

Shaw Organisation, for example, will next month screen the martial arts drama The Assassin (2015), winner of the Best Director award at the Cannes Film Festival for Taiwan's Hou Hsiao-hsien. Later this month, Shaw will also screen the acclaimed documentary Amy (2015), about the late singer Amy Winehouse.

In what will be its first attempt at screening first-run movies that are also showing in commercial cinemas, The Projector will screen both Amy and The Assassin.

It is all about offering as many reasons as possible for ticket-buyers to show up, explore and - its owners hope - fall in love with the cinema's unique vibe.

John Lui

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2015, with the headline 'Tough luck for arthouse cinemas'. Print Edition | Subscribe