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Bangkok cinema's golden age ends as curtain falls on Scala

Demise of famed theater leaves new generation of independent movie houses

Bangkok's Scala theater on the night of July 5, when the iconic building hosted its final screening. (Photo by Yukako Ono)

BANGKOK -- The closure of Thailand's best-known stand-alone movie theater in early July marked the end of an era for Thai cinema, completing the replacement of the capital's large independent picture houses with gleaming but bland megaplexes. Yet an appetite for independent films has seen growth of small, arthouse cinemas in Bangkok.

The city's small but enthusiastic following for independent cinema was evident on July 5, as nostalgic moviegoers flocked to bid farewell to the 51-year-old Scala theater in Siam Square in central Bangkok. The final screening was the 1990 Oscar-winning Italian classic "Cinema Paradiso," which features a bygone movie theater.

"A lot of people grew up watching movies at Scala long before the multiplex days," Kong Rithdee, deputy director of the Thai Film Archive, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Scala holds a special place in the collective memory of at least two or three generations of filmgoers. There is a lot of sentimental and historical value attached to the Scala, as a place and as a symbol."

Scala was built by the Thailand's Apex Group in 1969 following the success of two sister theaters in the Siam Square neighborhood -- the Siam and the Lido. It was a golden age for movies, with stand-alone theaters opening around the country. Kong, who frequented Siam Square's three theaters in his childhood with his brother, remembers the area as "my place of education" in movies.

"Going to the movie house was like a spectacle or magic, something different from the multiplex experience these days," he said. "Cinema was somewhere important in our lives -- where you spend two or three hours with your friend, where you fall in love, where you feel joyful or sad."

Top: Ushers wearing the theater's classic yellow suits help a moviegoer find his seat at the final screening. Bottom: The audience takes in the theater's final moments. (Photos by Yukako Ono)

Siam Square's three theaters brought bustle into the once drowsy area, helping to turn it into one of the Thai capital's prime commercial locations. The area has become a must-visit fashion and food destination for local university students and a shopping haven for tourists.

However, its development has pushed up the cost of rents and leases. Many small shops and restaurants have disappeared as the area's landlord, Chulalongkorn University, has reclaimed land to develop cash-generating shopping malls.

Scala's closure notice came as the lease held by Apex Group, the theater's operator, expires this year. The Lido closed in 2018 to make space for a new shopping mall. The cinema was reopened inside that mall in 2019. The Siam was burned down during a political protest in 2010.

Kong Rithdee, deputy director of the Thai Film Archive. “Going to the movie house was like a spectacle or magic, something different from the multiplex experience these days,” says Kong. (Photo by Yukako Ono)

Though the fate of the Scala building remains undetermined, cinema enthusiasts are concerned it may be demolished for development. "From its track record, I think Chula[longkorn] may only seek the maximum profit without seeing social, cultural or historical value in Scala, and I think that's disgraceful," said Philip Jablon, an expert on the history of movie theaters in Southeast Asia. "It would be a huge loss if the theater would be destroyed and replaced with something else."

With its unique architecture and iconic space, Jablon describes Scala as "the grand dame of film exhibition" in Thailand and "the best of its kind in Southeast Asia." Its name, which means "ladder or stairs" in Italian, was inspired by the Teatro alla Scala opera house in Milan. A double staircase curving up to the main lobby, lit from above by a five-tier chandelier, gives the theater a Western art deco ambience, while wooden wall carvings with Asian themes add an Eastern touch.

The chandelier, staircase, curving pillars and gold ceiling are among the Scala's iconic design features. (Photo by Yukako Ono)

Moviegoers such as Winey, a 28-year-old office worker who attended the final screening, preferred watching movies at the old-school theater even if the same title was being screened at a neighboring multiplex. "It was where movie lovers came to just absorb the atmosphere," he said.

But Scala had long ceased to be commercially viable. Although the number of seats had been cut to around 700 from the initial 1,000, "it was still hard to fill so many seats when new films are opening every day and there are no epic films ... like 'Gone with the Wind' (1939), 'The Ten Commandments' (1956) or even 'Star Wars' (1977)," said Kong.

Multiplex cinemas in shopping malls also have a clear advantage in competing with streaming services such as Netflix. "While multiplexes with small rooms of only 200 seats can show five different movies on their multiple screens, [starting] at half-an-hour intervals, Scala with only one big screen can only do five or four showings a day," Kong said. "The model is not working in the landscape of the filmgoing experience these days."

Apex had kept the cinema going with cash generated from other businesses, but "COVID-19 was the final blow," said Nanta Tansacha, owner of the group. What was expected to be a temporary closing because of the pandemic became its final curtain call.

Scala employees thank members of the audience as they leave on the final night. (Photo by Yukako Ono)

Traditional cinemas are fading all over the world, but their decline in Thailand is particularly extreme because of the structure of the industry, noted Jablon. "Thailand has a duopoly in which two cinema chains have completely taken over the country," he said. Major Group, the country's largest cinema operator, and SF Cinema, its main competitor, control 99% of box office revenues, according to Major Group.

"The way that the multiplexes dominate the taste of the people [is concerning]," said Kong. "There is only one kind of film that people say is good and that is blockbusters with fast-moving stories featuring big stars. We should have more Thai films or smaller films even though they may not make as much money, to nurture the Thai filmmaking industry as well as the domestic audience."

Scala Manager Phuangthong Siriwan. (Photo by Yukako Ono)

This was a role that Scala had played in recent years. With the help of the Thai Film Archive, the theater had been screening revivals of Thai and international classics, and hosting film events such as a silent film festival. "We did small movies because many cinemas screen the big ones and we had to pick the ones that were better for us and better for the people," said Scala's manager, Phuangthong Siriwan.

The cinema also served as a learning center for people interested in arts and filmmaking. "I was often visited by students who wanted to learn about the history and businesses of movie theaters. I will miss talking to them," said Phuangthong. "But it doesn't make money, and cinema is a business after all."

Even so, small independent cinemas are popping up around the city to fill the space left by the big stand-alone theaters, including Bangkok Screening Room, co-founded in 2016 by Nicholas Hudson-Ellis, an Australian. The single-screen cinema has 52 seats and shows Thai and international films that are "less mainstream," in his words.

"The audience for small arthouse movies is there -- it's just that they aren't being served," he added. "There are a lot of movies that don't come out in Thailand because the big companies that have the money to buy the rights choose not to take the risks."

Bangkok Screening Room co-founders Nicholas Hudson-Ellis, right, and Sarinya Manamuti. (Photo by Yukako Ono)

One such film is "BlacKkKlansman," a 2018 crime comedy directed by Spike Lee that won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, but was not screened in Thailand on release. It is now being shown by Bangkok Screening Room until early August following requests from viewers. "There are movies that are in between blockbuster and arthouse that don't get onto the screens," Hudson-Ellis said.

The lack of screening opportunities is an even bigger problem for local filmmakers. "Even if you are talented nobody will know of your film if you don't have big stars in it because it won't be screened at multiplexes," Kong said.

While many Thai arthouse films and documentaries have attracted international attention, including "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives," which won the Palme d'Or prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival, Hollywood blockbusters and Thai romantic comedies and horror films remain the principal draws for local audiences.

The closure of Scala also has implications for the international standing of the Thai capital, said Hudson-Ellis. "When you have international events such as film festivals, you need a landmark cinema center for a big carpet launch; even if it is used only once a year for one day, the pride of Bangkok will be diminished by not having that one VIP gala venue."

Many film lovers hope that Scala can be preserved and redeveloped as a regional cinema center, setting an example for other countries in the region where similar trends are under way. But expectations are not high.

"No other Southeast Asian country has successfully been able to preserve and revive epic theaters," Jablon said. "If Scala manages to become something, it will set a good example for theaters in Southeast Asia."

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