The cinema scene in the west of Singapore had been in the doldrums for years. The famed Jurong Drive-In closed in 1985.
Golden Village opened its Jurong Point venue in 1995. Shaw Organisation's outlet at the Jurong Entertainment Centre had actually opened first, in 1993, but it shut in 2008 when the building was demolished to make way for the JCube mall. This left Golden Village the lone operator in that area.
When JCube opened last year, Shaw's cineplex came back with it.
Then late last month, the last of the Big Three cinema chains arrived when Cathay Organisation opened its Cathay Cineplex Jem, an outlet that outclasses its rivals in the west in both the number of halls and seats.
Jem and JCube are both close to the Jurong East MRT station, while Golden Village Jurong Point is three stops further west, at the Boon Lay station.
For moviegoers in the area, having the choice of three multiplexes compared with no choice just two years ago is, of course, a bonus. But size and newness is not everything.
In fact, it can be the least of the factors patrons care about. For people who have to pay $9 or more for a ticket and another $7 for a small drink and a box of popcorn, there are other considerations, such as comfort, overall cleanliness, image and sound quality, how easy it is to book online and in person, and the range of titles available.
My review of the three cineplexes contain a couple of surprises. For example, while Golden Village might be the oldest of the three, it scores well in legroom and toilet facilities (for men at least). It is also the venue with the most easily visible and accessed lobby.
Last Friday, I went to Jurong to test-drive one hall in each in the three multiplexes. I watched the same film, The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, in all three halls.
The Peter Jackson-directed fantasy-adventure movie was picked because, unlike others, it would be guaranteed slots in all chains, in the widest selection of formats (3-D, Imax, Dolby 7.1 and so on).
This allowed me to compare video and audio quality.
I did not watch the film in its entirety, but made sure I stayed long enough to catch the Mirkwood spider attack scene. In this sequence, there is fast motion, strong contrast of light and dark and sound that comes from all directions - the placement of objects on screen is easier for the eyes when the ears can hear sounds that are placed crisply and accurately in 3-D space.
The selection of screens in each multiplex was decided for me by what was immediately available upon exiting one cineplex and entering the next.
So, in sequence, I watched the 1.20pm show at Shaw JCube, the 2.25pm screening at Cathay Jem and the 4.15pm screening at Golden Village Jurong Point.
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CATHAY CINEPLEX JEM
The opening of Cathay's cineplex in Jem last month means all three big chains are now present in western Singapore. The newest venue in the west, with its 10-screen, 1,600-person capacity, is also the largest in the number of seats and screens.
The venue has a 13.6 by 7.3m large-screen experience, which it calls Digital Xtreme or DX, in a hall equipped with the new-format Dolby Atmos surround sound.
Tickets for the Digital Xtreme large screen are the same as those for the smaller ones: $12 during weekend peak hours. This compares with $13 for the 3-D screen (with another $2 for 3-D glasses).
The cineplex also has the only premium seating hall in the west with its Platinum class, which offers padded sofas, a private lounge and a dine-in service.
Screen: Hall 9. This hall was showing the plainvanilla version of The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug, sans 3-D.
Access: There are several escalators and lifts that take you to the cinema on level 5, but nearly all of them place you in a food court. This means movement can be slow when the food court is crowded.
Interior: Besides the usual single seats ($12 during peak hours), the hall has standard couple seats in the rear ($24 for two seats) and at the very back, wider couple seats that Cathay calls Ultima seats ($28 for two seats).
In my single seat, I had a seatback to seatback distance of 80cm, the most generous of the three cinemas I tested. The seat width of 45cm was decent. (Cathay says its seatback space measures 110cm and the seat width is 56cm width.)
Temperatures were fine and the hall corridor was spick and span. The men's toilet was small but clean.
Sight and sound: Set at the right levels. The Mirkwood spider scene came to life with the surround sound and after watching the film in 3-D, it was pleasant to watch it in 2-D for a change.
Booking: There was a very short queue for my 2.25pm show and none when I returned at 7pm for a check, showing that traffic moved quickly.
The Cathay website, though, makes you work a little harder. Instead of seeing the week's schedule for a venue on one page, you need to use a drop- down menu, select a film and venue, after which it spawns a new Web page with the results. After that, it is easy. The booking fee is $1.50, same as that charged by Golden Village. The iCathay app for IOS and Android lets smartphone users browse and book.
Variety: Despite the larger number of screens, options were limited. There were eight titles available, but Homefront, Frozen, Battle Of The Year, Firestorm, Last Vegas, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Everybody's Business had reduced schedules. The Hobbit, in three flavours (plain, 3-D or Digital Xtreme with Dolby Atmos), took the lion's share of slots.
Food: Cathay features gourmet popcorn ($10 for a small bag of caramel flavoured, $8 for cheese). Otherwise, it was $7.90 for the standard small drink and popcorn combo, which is average.
Cathay Organisation responds:
On the snack prices - We have special combo packages, such as F&B packages for students, senior citizens and various card members.
On the food court near the cineplex entrance - Jem is designed as a lifestyle hub where functionality and entertainment meet seamlessly.
On box-office performance so far with increased competition in the west - The population size in the west is ideal to fit the total of 16 screens that Cathay Cineplexes has in the west: 10 screens at Cathay Cineplex Jem and six at Cathay Cineplex West Mall. Cannibalisation of sales has been moderate and within expected range - we have seen a new market in the west opening up.
SHAW THEATRES JCUBE
The opening of JCube mall last year brought with it a new seven-screen Shaw cinema, the latest in its seven-multiplex chain across the island.
The standout feature is that it has the second Imax screen in Singapore, after the one in Shaw Lido in Orchard Road.
Screen: Imax, in 3-D
Access: There is a lift to the multiplex on the fourth level, but many will go up by one of two sets of escalators. This means a walk along a narrow corridor, which might make entry and exit tricky during rush hour.
Interior: The 159-seater Imax has seats with good legroom, measuring 74cm from backrest to backrest. (Shaw states that its own drawings indicate a seatback space of 100cm).
Width, from armrest to armrest, was adequate at 44cm, though they are positioned in an awkwardly high position.
The halls looked and smelled clean. The men's toilet was small, but generally clean too.
Sight and sound: The Imax screen is impressive. But to my eye, the screen looked slightly dimmer than the Imax screen at Lido, though a Shaw spokesman states that all equipment is calibrated. The volume level was loud, almost too loud in some sections.
Booking: There was no line for tickets at 1.20pm or at 7.20pm, when I returned for a check. This shows that ticket and snack lines are processed quickly during peak hours.
I paid $22 for one ticket, a pricey treat but standard for Shaw's Imax perk.
Booking through the shaw.sg website is straightforward. Of the three chains, however, Shaw's site looks the messiest.
That aside, users can browse by movie, location and format. They can also add a popcorn and drink combo ($7) to their ticket.
There is a $1 online booking fee, which compares well against the $1.50 of its two competitors.
There is also the Cinime app for IOS and Android devices, allowing users to browse and book, as well as take part in pre- and post-show events, such as contests.
Variety: There are a total of 11 titles available on seven screens, which looks to be a good selection for a suburban cinema. However, six of these (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Captain Phillips, Escape Plan, Frozen, Rigor Mortis and Last Days On Mars) are older releases on reduced schedules.
So besides Control, The White Storm, Everybody's Business, Firestorm and The Hobbit (in Imax or Digital), your choices are limited.
Food: It costs $7 for the smallest-sized popcorn- and-drink combo, which is slightly cheaper than average.
Shaw Organisation responds: When asked how his company would meet the challenge of Jurong newcomer Cathay, Mr Mark Shaw, executive vicepresident of operations for Shaw Organisation, says it has always focused on how to bring "better cinematic experiences" to patrons, such as its Imax experience.
On the loudness of the Imax sound, he says Imax has its own audio system, which delivers laser- aligned digital sound.
"This enables the sound to be crisp enough to hear a pin drop and precise enough to know exactly where it dropped."
GOLDEN VILLAGE JURONG POINT
Opened in 1995, this 1,062-seat, six-screen granddaddy of the three venues was refurbished in April last year.
The overhaul included new digital screens, Dolby 7.1 surround sound and the sprucing up of the toilets and box-office area.
Screen: Hall 6. This 226-seater had the plain version without 3-D.
Access: Unlike its competitors in the region, this cinema is well served by escalators and lifts. There are at least two sets of escalators connecting the multiplex's third floor location with the lower floor, and at least four lifts.
With more dispersal and entry points, coupled with the wider passageways, peak-hour congestion is less likely.
Interior: The seats were adequately spacious, with legroom measured at 70cm and width at 46cm. The temperature was in the just-right zone. The general area looked and smelled clean, as did the toilets. The men's room was the largest of the three cineplexes, with at least nine urinals available.
Sight and sound: I felt the screen was dimmer and the sound more muted than those at the other two cinemas, but that may have been the result of eye and ear fatigue, as this was the last hall I checked.
The localisation of sound during the Mirkwood spider attack scene was less distinct.
Booking: Buying a ticket at the box office was smooth at 4.15pm, but when I checked again at 6.30pm, there was a line of about 20 people. This was processed within 10 minutes.
Golden Village's website is the most user-friendly and boasts the cleanest design of the lot. Instead of making users click on drill-down menus to get the desired screening day and times, it just shows you the entire week's schedule on one page. There is a $1.50 online booking fee.
The iGV app for IOS and Android lets smartphone users browse and buy tickets, but it goes one step further by creating an e-ticket in the form of a QR code, which users scan to enter the cineplex. Clever.
Variety: As with the other chains, you could watch any movie you wanted, as long as it was The Hobbit. Yes, there were other titles available: Firestorm, Everybody's Business, Frozen, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and The White Storm. But with the exception of Firestorm, the rest were on reduced schedules.
Food: It was pretty standard here, at $7.90 for the small drink and popcorn combo.
Golden Village responds: The chain is confident that its patrons will keep coming back despite the return of Shaw and the entry of Cathay in the area, a spokesman told Life! in an e-mail.
"Business remains brisk for GV Jurong Point and there has been no noticeable decline in admissions. We believe the density of population in Jurong makes it possible for us to maintain our own catchment...
"GV also has a loyalty club of more than 570,000 members that continually offers privileges and promotions for our members to keep GV Jurong Point at top-of-mind recall," says the company's spokesman.
This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 20, 2013
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