Congratulations Chulalongkorn University for destroying South East Asia’s last great movie theater

It’s time to congratulate Chulalongkorn University for fulfilling their plans to replace the locally loved, internationally renowned and structurally sound Scala Theatre with a shopping mall. 

These plans were initially hatched nearly 10 years ago but were delayed due to widespread public condemnation. Earlier this week, wrecking crews started demolition on the iconic movie house, which has stood dormant for the past year and half.

Credit is mainly due to the university’s Office of Property Management, who arbitrarily took what was, without question, the finest example of mid-century movie theatre architecture left in Southeast Asia and turned it over to a proverbial pack of wolves without taking any binding preservation measures. 

It takes a great lack of foresight and no shortage of blind trust to do that. We are now being told by that proverbial wolf pack – the Central Group, who is developing the shopping mall – not to fear, that Scala will be built back just like it was before, only with the capacity to bear the weight of said shopping center and hotel on top of it. 

They made similar promises when they first acquired the rights to the property, stating that the architecture of Scala would be preserved as much as possible. That clearly hasn’t happened. Why should anybody believe them this time?      

Even if Central does go all out to rebuild the Scala exactly as it was, plus a shopping center/hotel overbuild, what’s the point if the space for the theatre is just a functionless backdrop? It will be an ersatz ode to what was truly Thailand’s last movie palace. 

The reason that Scala was so important was not solely its spectacular architecture, but that it was an active single screen movie theatre; the last link to Thailand’s golden age of movie-going. Scala regulars were not just casually going to the movies. They were participating in and upholding a ritual in the same space that their parents and grandparents had before them.      

Over the years, many detractors of the Scala have argued that on any given day the theatre was dead. An auditorium built for one-thousand would routinely have only 10 or 20 patrons per screening. At that rate, Scala was not paying for itself. Rather than a city treasure, they considered it a white elephant. 

Those revenue issues were real, but they belie a critical management problem. Namely, Apex squandered an opportunity with the Scala in recent years. They ran it like a typical movie theatre, programming it with the same mainstream content that was playing at the dozens of other theaters that had popped up in surrounding shopping malls. 

A stand-out film venue like Scala needed outstanding programming. 

That’s exactly what the Thai Film Archive had been doing for the 3 years prior to Scala’s closure. Through their Classic Film Series, Thailand’s top cinephiles had been proving that with curated programming Scala could be a money maker. All of those screenings were packed, and Scala’s airy bi-level lobby rang with the din of a large, avid crowd prior to each show. 

Like other stand-alone cinema halls that have been readapted to fit contemporary tastes, the Scala exuded class, and would have been successful if it had been thoughtfully programmed. It could have become the Thai equivalent to San Francisco’s Castro Theater, screening double and triple features of classic films on a daily basis. Or like the British Film Institute in London, pairing film and educational programming in a dynamic film space. The Scala could have been Bangkok’s bona fide cinema institution.

It’s all over now. The Scala is gone and Bangkok is a little less interesting than it was before. As for the Central Group’s plans rebuild it – unless you plan to build it back exactly as was designed and have it serve as a real movie theatre, why bother? You won’t save any face by building a fake Scala. 

One thing is certain: Chulalongkorn University can now pat itself on the back for allowing Thailand’s last movie palace to be destroyed.        

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