Karen Tan Turns Abandoned Nightclub Into Singapore’s First Socially-Distanced Pop-Up Cinema

By Hashirin Nurin Hashimi

Karen Tan, founder of independent cinema The Projector, takes over an abandoned nightclub for an 18-month pop-up cinema in Singapore

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When Karen Tan first stepped inside the abandoned Chinese disco on the top floor of Riverside Point in Clarke Quay, Singapore, there were half-empty glasses at the bar, the dance floor was strewn with furniture and sound equipment, and in the changing room, costumes lined the racks, with make-up on the vanity, and heels everywhere.

“It was as if the occupants had vanished in the middle of the day and left everything behind,” the founder of independent cinema The Projector says. “It felt like we had just stepped into a movie set.”

Fast forward to two years later and Tan has transformed the dance floor into a pop-up cinema, as part of The Projector’s new concept, Projector X: Riverside, which opened in late April for an 18-month period. “The idea of pop-ups marries well with The Projector’s approach of creating spaces that are not too polished, or too finished, and still quite raw,” she says.

“We felt that we could make something of the space by reusing or repurposing the furniture and fittings that were left behind. How often do you get to step back in time, and work on a sustainability project where you have to be resourceful on a shoestring budget,” she adds.

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Above  The old film poster-inspired mural by street artist Steve Lawler, aka Mojoko, is the focal point of the Neon Room cinema hall (Image: The Projector)

“We like going into spaces where people don’t see any potential in—and turning them around in interesting ways,” says Tan. The Projector's flagship cinema is a good example, for the multipurpose cinema, dining and event space has brought second life to the old cinema complex.

Tan is quick to point out that Projector X: Riverside is different from the flagship. “It’s a cinema and also a cafe and bar, so that’s similar to The Projector, but what we’re trying to do with Projector X is to create a different sort of cinema experience, with a lot more legroom and even a personal coffee table to be used as a lap tray for food and drinks. This is Singapore’s first—and hopefully last—purpose-built socially‑distanced cinema.”

The seats were saved from being discarded by another cinema and refurbished as standalone pairs, while the six existing booth seats offer spacious seating for two. This makes the 48-seater cinema, which is equipped with a Digital Cinema Package, or DCP, projector, well within the strictest capacity limits of Singapore’s safe management measures for Covid-19. And unlike any other cinemas here, moviegoers will be equipped with Bluetooth wireless headsets for greater sound quality—a more financially feasible solution than a full sound system.

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Above  The social space, bar and cafe at Projector X: Riverside (Image: The Projector)

Despite its smaller floor space than the flagship, Tan says that Projector X: Riverside has “more pockets of space, which allow us to emphasise a lot more on collaborations with artists, creatives or other interest groups.” For a start, there are the collaborations with Singapore talents such as street artist Steve Lawler, aka Mojoko, whose old film poster-inspired mural anchors the Neon Room cinema hall; drag queen Becca D’Bus, who put together the sequinned sashes left behind by the disco girls into a fabric mural; while poet-photographer Mark Nair’s art installations—and prose—occupy the three existing back rooms, including the changing room, which are left as they were found.   

When it comes to programming, Projector X: Riverside draws from the same slate as the flagship, from cult classics, documentaries and local films, to selections from film festivals and the Oscars season, but with exclusively curated flicks that respond to their physical environment. For example, the opening film Forever Fever (1998) is a disco-tinged musical comedy by Singaporean director Glen Goei.

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Above  Karen Tan, the founder of independent cinema The Projector

Almost seven years in the business as an independent cinema, Tan says, “We don’t take our existence for granted. Projector X speaks broadly to the larger theme of sustainability. You don’t always have to tear down; you can reuse in creative ways. I think taking a step back as an urban development approach is a much more sustainable way forward.”

While the cinema is very much a physical business, The Projector launched its own movies on-demand platform, Projector Plus, last July and is exploring ways of taking the cinema experience into the virtual world, “so that we can be a hybrid cinema.”

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