Bangkok film buffs were caught off-guard recently by news that another of the city’s few remaining standalone cinemas would shut forever.
The Bangkok Screening Room, an independent cinema in Silom’s Woof Pack building, followed Scala, the Art Deco standalone that served the Siam area for decades, in closing down for good, while the owners of Cinema Oasis in Phrom Phong have announced their theater will stay shut indefinitely during the pandemic.
For many film buffs, as well as Silom and Sathorn residents, the Bangkok Screening Room shutting its doors was an unsettling sign – as much for the loss of an alternative community space as it was for the future of Bangkok’s shrinking indie film scene.
“I’m so sad to hear this! I have supported them since the beginning and paid my membership even when I wasn’t in the country,” Camilla Davidsson commented on a post about the news. “I really hope [they] will come back, perhaps somewhere else in Bangkok.”
The membership Davidsson referred to was one of the cinema’s unique perks. The annual deal gave customers discounts on tickets, food and drinks, as well as early booking access and free passes. The biggest draw, however, was its program of art house, foreign, and independent films that the city’s blockbuster-obsessed megaplexes don’t screen.
Since opening in 2016, the theater has shown everything from classics like Peter Brook’s Lord of the Flies and Hollywood cult favorites like David Fincher’s Fight Club to modern Thai classics like The Story of Nampu and documentaries on Vivienne Westwood and internet meme Pepe the Frog.
Sarinya “Mew” Manamuti, one of the three founders, said the most popular film over the past four-plus years was, oddly enough, Ants on the Shrimp, a documentary about chef Rene Redzepi of Noma.
“When we first opened, we screened everything from fashion documentaries to classic films, [but] we didn’t know this one was going to be such a hit,” she said. “The tickets were sold out for almost every showing. Food is clearly something that a lot of people are interested in.”
Yet the appeal of the cinema went beyond its entertainment. There was the space itself, an intimate 50-seat room on the second floor of Silom’s art-focused Woof Pack Building, and then there were the specially curated food and drinks — from craft beer and wine to truffle-dusted popcorn.
These special selling points were off the table for much of 2020, however, as COVID-19 upended the Bangkok Screening Room’s otherwise steady business. As cinemas across Thailand were forced to close in March and April last year, the Bangkok Screening Room began offering voucher packs to drive sales. But the losses mounted as social distancing restrictions and two separate bans on the sale of alcohol took their toll on sales.
“We’re also a bar, so it’s tough,” she says. “There was no sign as to when the alcohol restrictions were going to be lifted, or whether there was going to be any assistance [from the government] for small businesses like ours.”
Mew explains the team wasn’t prepared for such a long period of inactivity.
“We’ve exhausted all our options and resources. The lack of government funding and support programs has slowly killed us, and there’s no guarantee when it comes to vaccines or the return of tourism,” she said. “It’s best to call it a day now rather than go into bankruptcy later on.”
Despite it all, Mew still believes cinemas like hers can make it in Bangkok. “First of all, it takes funding,” she says. “For example, The Projector in Singapore got support right away, as soon as the city announced the lockdown. In Australia, you can just go to the local council and apply for grants. The support is always there. But here, we got zero support from government programs. I feel that the system needs to change, like having a new government that supports the arts.”
That means financial support that isn’t just earmarked for times of crisis.
“It comes full circle. Film students need support after they graduate. We need to have more independent cinemas as platforms for young filmmakers to have careers, too. It’s pretty daunting to think that the film industry in Thailand is not appreciated and there’s no support,” she says. “Funding would definitely change everything.”
While the future of independent cinemas in Thailand might look bleak from the outside, Mew still feels hopeful. “Going to the cinema is an experience, and people are still interested in [indie] films. Netflix, for example, is offering more than just blockbuster movies now, which has significantly opened doors to the indie movie business,” she says.
“Although the physicality of the space depends on the economy, as long as there is still interest among people to keep indie films going, [standalone cinemas] will never die. I’m optimistic.”
Out of a nearly five-year run, Mew can clearly remember her favorite moments with the Bangkok Screening Room. “We were proud to be able to bring the LGBT community together and to celebrate International Women’s Day through our annual LGBT Film Festivals and Fem Film Festivals. A lot of LGBT films and female directors have been looked over in Thailand. At least we were creating conversations about important issues.”
While the future might remain uncertain for the industry, fans still have one more month to visit before the curtain falls for the final time.
The Bangkok Screening Room will stay open through March 31, when Mew hopes they can have a last farewell for their fans.
“If not events, then we might have little souvenirs or tokens,” she said.
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