Drawing inspiration from the organic grungy art spaces and independent cinemas of London, The Projector was the brainchild of sisters Karen and Sharon Tan (who is no longer in the business), and business partner Blaise Trigg-Smith.
The buzzing atmosphere of London’s arthouse and independent film venue, the Curzon Soho, the ‘electrifying’ feel of Britain’s oldest working cinema, Electric House, and the cosy vibe of Britain’s refurbished, 109 year-old cinema, the Ritzy Brixton, and its cinema bar, came to Karen’s mind when she envisioned The Projector.
The indie art-house cinema was established in 2015, with Karen and Blaise holding a majority of the shares.
Conceptualised with the tagline “not your average cinema”, The Projector is exactly that.
Beyond an independent cinema with a cafe bar and event space, The Projector is a platform for the arts, such as poetry readings, book readings, pub theatre, acoustic gigs, DJ parties, art exhibitions, as well as comedy nights.
Its raison d’etre is to create a place of diversity and inclusivity, where people can be comfortably themselves, and to house a myriad of creative work and performances with a passionate community of supporters.
Its spaces also see a lot of demand to host corporate events.
Surprisingly, Karen wasn’t always in the film industry.
After graduating from her masters programme in real estate economics and finance at the London School of Economics in 2004, she was based in London as an investment banker for six years.
She then relocated back to Singapore, where she started her own journey as an entrepreneur. She founded a real estate development consultancy, Project Pockets, which specialises in adaptive reuse of old and overlooked buildings.
With Project Pockets, she was handling projects across Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, when she stumbled upon disused cinema theatres at the Golden Mile Tower in 2014 which piqued her interest.
“Golden Mile Tower is a unique space – its the only remaining heritage cinema in Singapore,” said Karen.
Its cinemas were built back in the 1970s. The seats of the cinema date back to 1972, when it was built, and are restored.
“We thought it would be interesting to bring the forgotten cinema back to life and reintroduce the overlooked 1970s brutalist building to the public once again.”
Although the concept behind The Projector was a first in Singapore, nobody in the industry was willing to run the cinema for her. Karen and her sister, along with Blaise, took matters to their own hands and decided to run the cinema by themselves.
“We saw an unmet need in the market at that time- our concept of a cinema-bar was still new to Singapore at the time,” Karen said.
Things did not sail smoothly at the start.
With no one having experience in the F&B and film industries, the team had a steep learning curve to go through.
The Projector was partially funded through a crowdfunding campaign on an American crowdfunding website, Indiegogo, which was very well supported.
It first doubled up as a co-working space, and ran a bar after 5pm to make use of its unutilised space.
Over time, it became clear that the venue was more popular as a place for corporate and private venue hire, and this conflicted with its daytime co-working offering. Since corporate and private venue hires were more profitable, hence, the co-working operations were ended.
However, as The Projector set its flagship outlet in Golden Mile, the reputation of Golden Mile as a sleazy or dodgy place followed it around, often deterring customers from visiting.
Pushing through the setbacks and naysayers, it saw its first major success in one of its early screenings, a double bill of local short films contributed by two local directors. The screening, which was expected to have a turnout of 50 people, ended up hosting over 300 people, boosting the team’s morale and resolve to make The Projector work.
The Projector’s team was also its biggest asset. In the face of naysayers and failures, they had the passion to drive the cinema from ground up.
It was also one of Singapore International Film Festival’s screening venues in 2014.
Fast forward a couple of years, the pandemic badly hit the film industry – but it propelled The Projector upwards instead.
COVID-19 was both a threat and an opportunity to The Projector, said Karen.
On the broader cinema landscape, the pandemic impacted the supply of films and consumer patterns of film consumption. It saw a shift towards the adoption of streaming services.
With cinemas seeing losses due to the pandemic, The Projector team made the decision to pivot towards the adoption of streaming services as an opportunity – it launched Projector Plus, its online streaming platform, and sold merchandise online.
Its streaming platform allows it to host hybrid film festivals, as well as give traditional, commercially less viable films some air time. On top of that, it became the virtual platform partner for Singapore’s International Film Festival.
Other than setting up its online presence, The Projector also saw COVID-19 as an opportunity for it to grow its non-film business – in terms of sourcing pop up spaces, be it over a weekend or a year.
“This allowed us to experiment with different concepts such as Projector X: Riverside, a 50 seater cinema hall and bar space, and Electric Cinema, a weekend film festival in the turbine hall of Pasir Panjang Power Station,” Karen explained.
Projector X: Riverside was an 18 month takeover of an abandoned KTV, adapted to be a socially distanced cinema and cafe. Thereafter, the cinema-cafe was hit shortly by restrictions imposed due to Delta, but Projector X: Riverside weathered the storm is now thriving with all of its non-film content such as its pub theatre, corporate hire and music events, as well as DJ nights.
“Building these out during the pandemic meant that we were well poised to take advantage of the pent up demand for F&B bar and club events, as well as corporate events the moment restrictions were lifted.
In August, The Projector launched its latest venture – a pop-up concept housed in Cathay Cineplex.
When the news broke that The Cathay Cineplex was to close down in June, the Projector team saw an opportunity. And true to their word, the Projector managed to turn a dead mall space and cinema lobby at The Cathay into a vibrant social, cultural and entertainment hub in its latest pop-up concept.
Called Projector X: Picturehouse, it takes up over two floors and currently has four screens, each named named after defunct local cinemas, Majestic, Yangtze, Roxy and Ruby.
Its premium hall, Ruby Room, is equipped with fancy recliners and plushy seats, and can house 25 people. It hosts themed film dinners and provides a sensory cinema experience to guests.
The pop-up concept also hosts Q&A panels, markets, exhibitions, theatre productions, comedy nights, drag shows and live music alongside screening the films.
Other than the four screens, Projector X: Picturehouse also comprises the No Spoilers Bar (a cinema bar), the Blade Runner Ballroom (a flexible events space and NFT gallery), and an exclusive events space with an amazing view on level six of The Cathay.
A key differentiator of The Projector’s cinema experience is the wide array of food and beverages it offers.
In contrast to the popcorn and soft drinks combo you can get at regular cinemas, you’ll be able to snack on food from different cuisines, ranging from craft pizzas to rendang. These can all be brought into the cinema halls.
“Our customers love Projector X: Picturehouse’s cool, unusual chilled vibe, and energy of its space, with vintage furniture and lots of instagrammable spots,” said Karen.
She explained that as a business, The Projector loves to experiment. Pop ups allow them to do exactly that, and they can experiment with content, products, expansion, and occupying different types of spaces all while reaching out to different markets at the same time.
“We are honoured and excited to be able to operate in such a historic venue, but mostly this falls into the pattern of us using spaces in creative and profitable ways that others cannot or don’t wish to.”
However, managing a business that thrives in the old feel of vintage buildings is no easy feat.
With property rental rates and inflation in Singapore skyrocketing, the main challenge to the business is its rental and manpower costs.
Yet, sourcing interesting, old, and suitable spaces for The Projector’s operations and brand is also proving to be a challenge.
“Singapore’s current conservation regulations don’t really facilitate this – older spaces are usually not conserved. These spaces are very likely to be torn down, in favour of more glass and steel constructions,” explained Karen.
Given Singapore’s high real estate prices as well, property owners are all keen to enbloc their buildings.
“On the other hand, conserved government buildings are managed in a way that make their use commercially unviable for businesses like ours – we require a high amount of investment, and these costs are amortised over a longer period.”
Government-owned buildings are mainly leased out on short three year leases, making it impossible to do an adaptive reuse or set up a business like ours.
Looking past its challenges, The Projector hopes to grow its slate of independent film, mainstream film and non film content.
Thus far, the takeover of Cathay Cineplex by Projector X: Picturehouse has meant that The Projector has now more than doubled its capacity.
Its largest screening was at 500pax, providing The Projector with an entryway to launch its first premium venue. The venue will be launching this month, and will host the opening premiere of Singapore International Film Festival in Nov 2022.
On top of that, its looking to expand to one or two more locations within Singapore. Thereafter, it could potentially look beyond Singapore.
Additionally, as its flagship located at Golden Mile is also at risk of an en bloc, and The Projector also wants to establish a more permanent home in Singapore.
Meanwhile, The Projector wants to continue making an impact on the type of film and cultural content enjoyed by Singaporeans.
“There is so much good, thoughtful, artistic, eye opening, and entertaining content that we hope Singaporeans will start to seek out more across the board,” said Karen.
“The Projector should be made into a multifaceted cultural space for the community as opposed to just being a faceless machine that peddles film as product.”
Featured Image Credit: The Projector
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