On The Mic: Keeping an independent cinema alive amid a pandemic

On The Mic: Keeping an independent cinema alive amid a pandemic
(PHOTO: Kae Yuan)

LISTEN: Use the player above to hear our full interview with The Projector’s general manager Prashant Somosundram.

SINGAPORE — Compared with Singapore’s bigger cinema chains, The Projector is a modest operation.

Located at Golden Mile Tower, it features just three halls and an eatery – the Intermission Bar – but has gained a fiercely loyal following since it opened in December 2014.

During an interview with Yahoo News Singapore’s “On The Mic” podcast, The Projector’s general manager Prashant Somosundram explained how it is no small effort to keep the cinema going.

“It really takes a whole village to run this thing. Everyone’s pretty passionate about it. They bring their own element of creativity and their own voice to the space,” said the 40-year-old, who works with a team of 14 full-timers.

Adapting to the pandemic

With cinemas being among the first businesses to be shut – in late March – due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Somosundram said his team swiftly launched a merchandising effort to keep their operations afloat.

Thanks to the strong sales of tote bags and their local supporters, the cinema was afforded some “breathing room” as it looked into the possibility of taking its films online.

“For an organisation that prided itself on bringing people together, we now had to get our heads around, first, technology and then how to create that communal experience in a socially distanced environment,” he said.

Within three months, The Projector Plus streaming platform was launched, offering audiences the ability to watch films from the comfort and safety of their own homes.

Although their new digital service surfaced just when cinemas here were allowed to re-open, Somosundram said The Projector Plus has been vital to making up for the gap in cinema audiences. Due to the safe-distancing requirements, The Projector’s halls can only seat 30 to 40 per cent of their usual capacity.

Somosundram said one “silver lining” to the pandemic has been that The Projector Plus has allowed his team to reach new audiences. He cited the example of Lee Yuan Bin’s documentary I Dream Of Singapore, which has gone on to be viewed by thousands since it was put online.

Catering to a diverse audience

Part of The Projector’s success, said Somosundram, has been due to it providing a “familiar” and welcoming environment for visitors, as well as in catering to a diverse spread of filmgoers.

“Sometimes, we programme films about cats and that brings all the cat lovers out of the woodwork. We have some others like music documentaries and that brings in a whole different audience. Or like LGBT-themed films bring their own audiences,” he said.

The Projector also offers visitors a unique and more participative cinema experience, such as during the screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show when the audience were given toilet rolls to throw in the cinema.

“I think the local audiences really are game for that, which is the reason why they come to our cinema. It feels like you can let go and be part of a larger community,” he said.

As a cinema that values diversity and inclusivity in its programming, Somosundram and his team also try to get audiences engaged in social issues through their screenings. This can be seen in their annual events such as the Women Make Film showcase and Pink Screen LGBT film festival, and in the question-and-answer sessions that are held along with some of the films shown.

“We need to be commercially viable... but for us, it’s also important to have these difficult conversations that you may not expect in commercial spaces,” he said.

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