Thai powerhouse: Major Cineplex Group promotes entertainment lifestyle
In Thailand, watching a movie on the silver screen has always been relatively easy—which doesn’t necessarily mean that it always has been a pleasant experience, too. The tropical country’s larger cities—and its capital Bangkok in particular—were served by literally hundreds of invariably standalone theatres. Some of them were enormous caverns seating 2,000 people and more at a time, while many others could still pack an audience of 500 and up. Quantity was the call of the day if operators wanted to make a modest profit from tickets that sold at only 35 to 40 baht ($1.40 to $1.60) for even the best seats. General maintenance, projector and sound system upgrades and frequent refurbishing or renovation were out of the question under these circumstances. Antiquated air-conditioning units rattled and puffed, achieving little more than redistributing the sweat and body odor of hundreds of people. Sound blackouts were as regular as the monsoon rains, and the aisles more often than not were sticky from countless soft drinks spilled on them over the course of years. Creaky seats were either covered with cracked (and equally sticky!) synthetic leather or rubbed polyester fabric, their upholstery commonly infested with a menagerie of creepy crawlies.
Overall, a visit to even the most reputable theatre in those days could—at least for a pampered Westerner—turn out a veritable nightmare, distracting one’s senses from fully enjoying the movie. I vividly recall such a horror episode in one of Bangkok’s largest cinemas in the late 1980s. As soon as the lights had dimmed, rats began scurrying about, all too soon followed by a yucky armada of cockroaches emerging from the damp innards of my seat and crawling all over my forearms, back and hair. I’ve never been in and out of a theatre that quickly! Ironically, the movie screened that stuffy evening was Fright Night Part 2.
But things certainly have changed since then, and luckily all for the better. Especially in Bangkok and popular tourist resorts, most of the standalone theatres called it a day and have been replaced by modern cineplexes that are putting a much higher emphasis on comfort and state-of-the-art screening technology, while they can still pack very sizeable audiences. Yes, ticket prices have risen, but in exchange Thailand’s movie theatres are today perhaps among the most luxurious in the world, easily outscoring even the best U.S. chains.
At least some kudos for this remarkable development must go to Major Cineplex Group Plc, whose visionary founder, entrepreneur extraordinaire Vicha Poolvaraluk, to this day upholds his mantra, “We are not only cinema—Major Cineplex is an entertainment lifestyle company.” He was convinced that what Thai moviegoers needed and wanted were not merely theatres that focused on screening movies, but an all-round entertainment experience in a contemporary, sophisticated setting. “If we could provide this, people also would accept higher ticket prices, because they’d appreciate that what they received in return was good value for money. Vicha was right,” recalls Jim Patterson, the company’s director of business development, who has been with Major Cineplex Group since the very beginning.
Nowhere does this concept become more apparent than in the chain’s flagship venue, Paragon Cineplex, which occupies practically the entire top floor of central Bangkok’s hippest high-end shopping mall, Siam Paragon. Stepping out of the steamy, perennially traffic-gridlocked and exhaustion fume-choked streets into this sanctuary of stylish modernity can be—particularly for the unsuspecting first-time visitor—an almost spiritual experience. An ample open-space lobby with an impossibly high ceiling doesn’t induce the claustrophobic feeling so common in many Western cinema complexes, where every nook and cranny has to be utilized to justify often prohibitive rents. Moviegoers can take a stroll around generously distributed concessions counters to stock up on popcorn and soft drinks (Patterson: “Our popcorn machines are the best around”), take a quick pre-movie bite or coffee at one of several local- and international-branded fast-food outlets, or lounge in a comfy chair in one of the seating corners while admiring the tastefully decorated walls. “We frequently earn ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ for our wall decorations,” asserts Patterson. Even a visit to the squeaky-clean bathroom turns out to be a most pleasant revelation in a country not necessarily noted for its spotless public facilities.
Vicha’s corporate vision of “entertainment lifestyle” continues once audiences venture into one of the currently 16 theatres that make up Paragon Cineplex and (together with the lobby) share a floor area of approximately 162,000 square feet (just over 15,000 square meters). Here, no ridiculously miniscule 30-seat theatre with uninspiring, drab walls exists, where audiences are squeezed in like canned sardines, the first row being just eight feet from the screen. Instead, the amazing spaciousness and luxurious ambience that already characterize the lobby also continue throughout the theatres, with plenty of leg and elbow room for everyone, plush carpeting and incredibly comfortable reclining chairs. All theatres are also thoroughly insulated to prevent sound leakage. Paragon Cineplex’s largest cinema, the aptly named Siam Pavalai Royal Grand Theatre (Patterson: “Because it was inaugurated by one of the daughters of Thailand’s King”), boasts a capacity of 1,200 people, while most others hold no less than around 150 to 200.
As much as Major Cineplex Group thrives through providing an extremely pleasant movie-watching experience, the company also excels in creative and very innovative marketing. “I am pretty certain we are the only cinema operator in the world sponsored by a hospital,” Patterson asserts as we pass Siam Pavalai Royal Grand Theatre, its large main entrance emblazoned with the logo of one of Bangkok’s major hospitals, Bangkok Hospital. The hospital uses Paragon Cineplex’s tremendous popularity among movie fans not only as a public-relations vehicle for its own facility, but also to promote general health. “For example, the hospital may set up a booth with several of their nurses who check moviegoers’ blood pressure or cholesterol level and dispense various ‘Did you know?’ general health tips for free,” Patterson explains. Furthermore, holders of Bangkok Hospital patient cards may receive ticket discounts or be invited to special movie screenings.
Major Cineplex Group’s sponsorships don’t end here, though. Paragon Cineplex’s IMAX theatre is sponsored by a major financial institution, Krungsri Bank, some of its regular cinemas by another, Krung Thai Bank, while its state-of-the-art 4DX cinema (the group holds the sole distribution rights for both IMAX and 4DX in Thailand) is sponsored by Advanced Info Systems (AIS), one of the country’s foremost private telecommunications companies. “Particularly banks and telecom firms are keen on sponsoring us, because they know they can gain a lot of brand recognition from it. After all, we welcome over three million movie fans every year at Paragon Cineplex alone,” Patterson elaborates, adding that such sponsorships also benefit his own company. “Sponsors communicate special promotions such as two-for-one ticket deals, free popcorn, or exclusive screenings to their literally millions of customers nationwide, which fosters our own brand recognition just as much as it does theirs.”
The opportunity to raise its profile through promotional gimmicks, special box-office lanes and VIP treatment for their members also enticed regional boutique airline Bangkok Airways to embark on a sponsorship, the result of which is Paragon Cineplex’s posh Bangkok Airways Blue Ribbon Lounge, which comprises an exclusive lounge with fully stocked bar and three separate screens. Although anyone can purchase a ticket to access the lounge, people showing a Bangkok Airways membership card or a recent boarding pass are entitled to varying promotions and special privileges, which may sometimes include a complementary 15-minute massage, administered before or after the movie.
Yes, you’ve read that right! Definitely an absolute world-first, Paragon Cineplex boasts its very own spa, located directly adjacent to Bangkok Airways Blue Ribbon Lounge and operated by the Thai capital’s trendy boutique hotel, VIE Hotel, which is also owned by Vicha Poolvaraluk. “It seemed a bit of a gamble at first to put a spa into a cinema complex, but it has definitely worked out. It enjoys quite a turnover even from normal ticket holders who don’t receive a complimentary treatment but must purchase it,” Patterson smirks.
Unusual sponsor relationships aside, the pinnacle of ingenious quirkiness as far as Paragon Cineplex is concerned certainly must be its unique Enigma theatre, a brainchild of Vicha himself. Entry is through an exclusive, tastefully furnished lounge-cum-cocktail bar. But before reaching the theatre proper, one has to traverse a further narrow anteroom equipped with a row of bar stools lining up against a wall penetrated by individual Plexiglas windows. Headsets are installed above each stool. “The original idea was that Enigma guests who had an urge for a smoke during the movie could leave their seat, settle out here on one of the stools while continuing to watch the movie through the window and following the dialogue wearing a headset,” Patterson elaborates. “Unfortunately, smoking in public places has in the meantime been prohibited by law, so the anteroom has basically become obsolete.” However, the theatre still enjoys a healthy audience turnover thanks to another mind-boggling feature: Instead of regular seating, Enigma boasts actual beds complete with cushions and even a ring button to call a waiter and order a drink from the bar! “It’s like enjoying a movie in the comfort of your own bed at home, but of course with the full cinematic experience; and I believe this is yet another possible world-first,” Patterson says.
While Paragon Cineplex may be the company’s paradigm of how to draw in crowds and instill 21st-century excellence into Thailand’s movie theatre landscape, Patterson asserts that Major Cineplex venues across the country differ only marginally in terms of poshness and luxury. Two locations to be opened before year’s end in brand-new, hyper-modern malls in the southern city of Hat Yai and the northern capital of Chiang Mai will be consistent with the flagship venue’s level of sophistication.
There is also still plenty of room for expansion. While the company aims at operating at least 500 screens nationwide by the end of the year (and also achieve 100% digitization), it currently has covered “only” 31 of Thailand’s 77 provinces, aiming to reach 1,000 screens by 2020. Furthermore, it has begun to eye opportunities in neighboring countries. For example, it recently partnered with Japan’s Aeon Mall to operate a cinema complex in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh with seven screens totaling approximately 1,400 seats and representing an investment of 150 million baht (about $5 mil.), carried through a joint venture with a Cambodian firm. The project is expected to be ready by mid-2014.
Established in 1995 and claiming a current market share of 70 percent against its competitors, Major Cineplex Group was publicly listed in 2005 at the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET). It posted a net profit of 740.88 million baht (approx. $24.7 mill.) for the first half of 2013, compared to 464.9 million baht in the corresponding period last year. Its advertising revenue jumped from 694 million baht in 2010 to 766 million in 2011, and reached 871 million in 2012.
“Our success is as much the result of our innovative marketing approach as it is of our fine-tuned corporate culture. Everything has to come together, and perhaps it takes someone like Vicha—a man with vision, experience and direction—to stay on top of it all,” Patterson declares.