MCL & Shaw Unveil Hong Kong's Biggest Multiplex

The cinema-going scene in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China is in the midst of a massive overhaul, some of the changes exciting, others worrying. While art houses and independent cinemas have been closing (mostly a result of rent increases), there have also been high-class upgrades to many cinema complexes, plus the opening of an IMAX screen, a 4D cinema at the airport, and even a drive-in.

The latest of these developments is The Grand Cinema, a HK$100 million joint venture between Multiplex Cinema Ltd. and Shaw Properties Holdings Ltd., located at the newly opened high-end Elements mall. With 12 screens and around 1,700 seats, it is Hong Kong's largest multiplex, with a luxury Gold Class cinema and an interactive zone. Its unique architectural design comes from Michael Tsang, and a state-of-the-art infrasonic sound system, the first of its kind, from Erick Stark and Tom Hidley.

“We all know what dramatic impact piracy and viewership fragmentation have had on Hong Kong's theatrical scene,” observes Grace Wong, general manager of Intercontinental Group Holdings Ltd. “Every theatre operator is looking at ways to compete successfully for a fixed or shrinking pie.”

Wong continues, “We aim to build a multi-function cinema house, something more elaborate where people come not just to watch a movie, but to see exhibitions, buy souvenirs, have dinner, etc. We aim for an overall entertainment venue.”

Such changes are not without precedent, and the current problems of motion picture piracy, either through pirated optical discs or illegal downloads, still cut heavily into exhibition revenues. To bring back viewers, eager to watch a film as soon as possible and at the next-to-nothing cost of a DVD-R, into the cinema, exhibitors have resorted to novelty (such as 3D) and quality. The Grand Cinema is a mixture of both.

“Our opening film is the 3D version of A Nightmare Before Christmas, the first time in Hong Kong there's been a full-length digital 3D projection. We were the first to do digital projection in our cinemas in Hong Kong with Finding Nemo. Digital projection technology is not new to the film industry, but it's something that Hong Kong has not caught up to,” notes Wong.

Wong's stated aims, however, are not to compete with other cinema operations in Hong Kong, but instead to increase the market share of the cinema-going population in a way that exhibitors could not previously afford.

“The operating cost of a theatre in Hong Kong is very expensive, and even if the box office of a film is not very bad, it needs to be cut after two or three weeks. With 12 houses, we can extend the release date where it couldn't be done in the past and still have enough screens for all the new movies coming out,” Wong explains.

This opening of this cinema also marks the return of Shaw to the exhibition sector, and together with the newly opened US$180 million, 1.1-million-square-foot Shaw studio facilities, could mark the beginning of a new Shaw empire.

Asked how The Grand Cinema will affect Shaw's position as a vertically integrated studio, Lloyd Chao, Shaw Studios’ director of business development and marketing, responds, “The nature and business model of a vertically integrated studio has changed considerably in Hong Kong over the last 30 years. There are no such studios left. And in the rest of Asia, even theatres affiliated with major producers must operate at arm’s length from their owners, and compete for outside content in order to survive.

“A combination of foresight and perhaps a little luck led the Shaw Brothers to gradually pull back from its film production and exhibition business, commencing in the ’80s,” says Chao. “The company had effectively divested all its major theatrical holdings by the time Hong Kong cinema hit its lowest trough. The strategy to focus on TVB proved to be the correct course. The Grand Cinema represents an opportunity for Shaw to re-enter the market with a very strong partner in MCL to establish a premier multiplex experience in the region.”

Looking forward, Chao concludes, “The passion for movies has always remained at Shaw Brothers, and The Grand Cinema represents an opportunity to both re-enter the market and to evaluate how best to exploit vertical integration. There are business models and plans, but as we all know, what happens in the real world can be completely different. We think the Elements project offers all the right pieces: excellent location, solid partner, opportune timing. Whether this is a one-off for us, we shall wait and see.

“We spent a lot of money in order for everything to be of the highest quality, not just the sound and architecture. We paid attention to everything, such as the air conditioning. A moviegoer might not be able to say why they did or didn't enjoy the experience, but if we provide overall quality of comfort for the consumer, their experience will be heightened,” Wong declares.

One of the most impressive aspects of the theatre is the unique infrasonic sound system, which is capable of reaching very low bass frequencies. The cinema is also equipped with actuators that resonate the seats at infrasonic frequencies, allowing the audience to feel frequencies below the audible range. This is not the only element it boasts, and Shaw Studios chief technical officer Eric Stark paid attention to every aspect of the sound design, including the placement of the cinema's amplifiers right next to the speakers in order to reduce audio quality drop-off, even the use of acoustically transparent headrest materials on the seats.

“It's about bringing you into the picture and leaving you with an experience that can have a powerful long-term effect,” states Eric Stark, chief technical officer for Shaw Studios. “I haven't been to very many cinemas where I can experience films as they should be. We can jump to 10.2 or any crazy idea, but let's just get it right. It either heightens the experience or doesn't, and hopefully it can suck the viewer into the moment more. To me, it's all about drawing you further into the reality of the film to create an environment where the public can enjoy what the director and technical crew wanted you to experience.”

Asked what options are open for existing cinemas wanting to upgrade to such a system, Stark replies, “I have a team of guys that could retrofit cinemas around the world and the cost wouldn't be disadvantageous to the operation. This is a business and it’s about putting bums on seats.” Such retrofits would involve changing the sound system's B-chain: amplifiers, speakers, acoustics of the room itself, etc.

“The cost isn't exponential, but the benefits are,” Stark declares. “The biggest thing is a desire to do it, and until there's a commitment to quality from cinema owners, rather than just filling seats, I guess you have to travel to Hong Kong.”

Wong recalls, “I still remember when the MTR Corporation [the Mass Transit Rail Corporation, which developed and manages Elements] first approached us in 2002. They said they were building a different kind of shopping mall, and we heard that the government was going to build this area of Hong Kong into a cultural space. This, together with the potential space offered us—room enough for 12 houses, a foyer, a restaurant, etc.—is why we partnered with them.”

“Every project has its own character and site constraints,” says Michael Tsang, director of AGC Design. “I love to make use of its constraints as design opportunities. This time, the foyer is situated below four mega-residential towers 70 stories high, so that we have columns of colossal sizes, randomly located, and limited headroom.”

This design is influenced by the great Spanish Catalan architect Antonio Gaudí. Tsang paid a visit to Barcelona to revisit some of Gaudí's work when designing the cinema. And like Gaudí's work, a lot of what is seen in The Grand Cinema is influenced by the beauty found in the rhythms of nature. This is most evident in two sculptural set-pieces, “Flame of Dynamite” and “Drops of Elegance.”

“'Flame of Dynamite,’ which is made from fiberglass, freely flows out over the ceiling of the foyer and spreads beyond the premises’ boundary into the arcade. The surfaces are designed in a homogeneous way so that convex and concave surfaces add drama and create an exciting interplay of light and shade,” Tsang explains.

The second piece, “Drops of Elegance,” is described by Tsang as “spectacular for its over 30,000 crystals, freely hung like a tree, sparkling with illusions in the symphony of wind, shining brightly on the ground.”

Summing up, Tsang believes that the space of the cinema complex itself should be an extension of the film-watching experience: “It is all about the perception of senses. Pain is pain, happy is happy, love is love. Through the quality of spatial communication and careful design details, these instinctive feelings can be picked up again by the busy people in Hong Kong any time.”