Cinemas go high-tech to tackle labour shortage

OLD METHOD: The film projection room at Cathay Cineleisure. Previously, each theatre hall needed one projectionist to screen the movie. But the new digital system means this is no longer necessary. -- ST PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN
OLD METHOD: The film projection room at Cathay Cineleisure. Previously, each theatre hall needed one projectionist to screen the movie. But the new digital system means this is no longer necessary. -- ST PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN
NEW METHOD: Cathay Organisation CEO Suhaimi Rafdi showing how the cinema experience – lights, curtains and movie projection – can all be controlled remotely from a laptop. -- ST PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN
NEW METHOD: Cathay Organisation CEO Suhaimi Rafdi showing how the cinema experience – lights, curtains and movie projection – can all be controlled remotely from a laptop. -- ST PHOTOS: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Computers can do jobs like screen the movie, sell and check tickets

Most moviegoers spare little thought for the existence of the film projectionist. Now, they might be justified in doing so - for he may not exist at all.

From projection rooms without projectionists, to automatic gates which check your tickets, cineplexes are finding high-tech ways to tackle the labour crunch.

Dimming the theatre lights, drawing the curtains back from the screen and starting the movie can all be done at the touch of a button - or even less.

Cathay Cineplex Cineleisure Orchard's computer system lets all this be scheduled in advance.

Once the "playlist" of the day is set up, staff just have to make sure everything goes smoothly. Changes can be made from an office computer, or even a laptop.

"We embarked on this to reduce our reliance on manpower," said Cathay Organisation chief executive officer Suhaimi Rafdi.

The firm's foreign worker quota was recently lowered to 40 per cent of total headcount for the services sector, down from 45 per cent.

Previously, each theatre hall needed one projectionist to screen the movie. But the new system means this is no longer necessary.

Five of the eight projectionists at the outlet now play other roles, such as duty managers.

By the end of September, the system will be in place at all seven Cathay locations, freeing up 19 projectionists for front-line jobs.

"This means we will be less reliant on labour - by 19 people - for day-to-day operations," said Mr Suhaimi.

Computers will soon co-star alongside staff in ticket sales, too.

Cathay is replacing some of its manned box office counters with digital kiosks where patrons can buy tickets and even snacks - though you will still have to pick up your popcorn and drinks from the concession stand later.

Self-service kiosks are one possibility Shaw Organisation is considering, though the idea might end up on the cutting-room floor.

Said Mr Terence Heng, vice-president of media: "We are constantly reviewing suitable technologies."

Unlike Cathay, Shaw still screens some movies on physical film rather than in digital format.

But for its digital screenings, it already has an automated computer-based system in place.

Golden Village's theatres are also managed remotely, and patrons can buy tickets from AXS machines. But now, even entering the theatre can be done without meeting a staff member.

At GV City Square Mall, patrons can enter via an "auto-gate", by scanning a QR code which is sent to their mobile phones when they book tickets online.

For now, this is the only location with an auto-gate. The system, installed last November, is still under evaluation, said a Golden Village spokesman.

Cathay's Mr Suhaimi sees all these productivity measures as the future of a labour-strapped cinema industry.

The issue now, he said, is getting patrons to give the system good reviews: "If they see human operators, they still like to join the queue."

janiceh@sph.com.sg