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Golden era of the silver screen
18/10/2005 8:44

The opening of the Shanghai SFG Village Cinema City on the 11th floor of the Shanghai New World emporium is a good reason why visitors should take a closer look at this 90-year-old historic building on the busy Nanjing Road.
"It is the 'highest' cinema in Shanghai," says Jiang Yuehua, who works for the cinema's owners. "And it adds to the charm of the old building."
It also seems that the placing of a "new" cinema inside an "old" building may be a selling point with some movie fans.
The SFG Village features soft lighting, romantic background music, art-deco furniture and luxurious interior decoration, which all combine to evoke a nostalgic mood in moviegoers.
"It seems that the theater is trying to make a name for itself as both a fashionable spot and a nostalgic venue for the older generation who remember Shanghai in the 1930s when it was a paradise for filmmaking and screenings," says Tao Yindi, an 80-something movie fan.
And it seems that even for the younger generation, nostalgia can be an attraction and another reason for going to the cinema - especially when it's fresh and full of fun.
"When I was watching 'Stealth' (a Hollywood movie), I was also in a reminiscent mood evoked by the glamor of the cinema," says Chris Yu, a 20-something movie buff. "You know, it was a fantastic experience."
In total, there are only 280 seats in the theater's six "mini" screening halls, less than the number for a single screening hall at Paradise Warner Cinema City in Xujiahui or Studio City Cinema in Westgate Mall.
The opening of SFG Village Cinema City is a cause for concern about the future of the city's other old cinemas - what will happen to them in the face of fierce competition from the up-to-date theaters?
One of the classic old movie houses is the Grand Theater. The cinema boasts a butter-maize-colored outer facade built like a huge sail, a smooth arc that curves to encompass the whole theater under a glittering, folded water lily-shaped three-tiered roof. The use of Italian marble in the auditorium and lobby adds a touch of luxury.
"In the early 1930s, the building was designed by renowned local expatriate architect L.E. Hudec," says Fan Xiaozhou, an official with the cinema. "His designs embodied imaginative originality and a creative modern style."
Shrinking sales
Covering an area of more than 7,000 square meters, the cinema first opened to the public in the winter of 1928 on what was then called Park Road (now Nanjing Road E.), and five years later, it shifted to a new location on Bubbling Well Road (now Nanjing Road W.).
For a long time, it was claimed to be one of the most advanced cinemas in the world with a simultaneous translation system installed on all of its 1,913 seats (now around 1,500 seats) and an air-conditioning system. In the 1930s, most of the movies being screened were American and European productions.
"Going to films was a stylish form of entertainment during that period and giving people the chance to enjoy seeing attractive Western pictures in a magnificent movie palace," recalls Tao, the old lady. "Children were usually dressed in their best clothes. I remember the ticket price was 2 yuan - one-fourth of an ordinary worker's monthly salary. For many ordinary families, it was such a luxury."
Once crowned as "The No. 1 Cinema of the Far East," Grand Theater has had its ups and downs but still retains its grandeur. However, ticket sales have been shrinking over the past five years ever since state-of-the-art cinemas started to open around town.
"During 1988-99, our theater had some of the highest box office receipts in China, more than 10 million yuan a year on average," Fan says. "In 1998, the Hollywood blockbusters 'Titanic' and 'Saving Private Ryan' helped to create a record in annual ticket sales - 20.2 million yuan."
But its position was largely threatened with the opening of Studio City Cinema and other modern cinemas in the downtown area. Studio City, one of the first local cinemas to open with multiple screening halls and advanced facilities, immediately attracted white-collar workers, an important customer group and the annual box office returns at the Grand Theater dropped to 7.5 million yuan last year. By comparison, Studio City took in 24 million yuan in ticket sales last year.
"We struggle to keep pace and keep alive the brilliance of this great old cinema but it isn't easy," Fan says. "The building is protected as part of the city's historical heritage and any renovation projects have to carefully thought out and must have official approval."
Now the cinema has plans to build an "entertainment world" around it while restoring its unique huge hall.
The Grand Theater, when compared with other old cinemas, has been lucky.
"In the past few years, a few old cinemas such as Xinhua Cinema and Jiangning Cinema have vanished because they couldn't compete with the modern theaters," says an old employee at the Jing'an District's Peace Cinema who declined to be named. "That was a pity and should raise the alarm for others."
Changing tastes
Take the Cathay Theater for example. Located on the hustle and bustle of Huaihai Road M., the theater seems a success after its renovation in 2003. The art-deco theater, once part of millionaire Victor Sassoon's holdings, opened in January 1932, showing a mix of Chinese and Western films.
Earlier this year, it was named a "Five-Star Cinema" by the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television.
"People come here also to enjoy the old-fashioned glamor of Shanghai," says Han Bilang, vice manager of Cathay Theater. "That can well explain why in 2003 we invested 13 million yuan ex-panding our single screening hall to three while maintaining the original flavor."
Dr Liu Haibo who teaches film art at Shanghai University attributes the slowdown in ticket sales at the old cinemas mainly to their comparatively out-of-date facilities and the ever-changing tastes of cinemagoers.
"The point is, a lot of old theaters have only one large screening hall, which obviously doesn't offer many choices to the audience," Dr Liu says. "A brand-new mode of operation with multiple screens is vital for their survival."
Experts also note that a feasible alternative is to move these cinemas from downtown to the residential areas.
On the general attitude of youth towards the old cinemas, Chen Xiaochun, a student at Fudan University, says: "The modern cinemas may suit the taste of young people but if I want to see a nostalgic film that focuses on local culture, I might choose to see it in an old cinema."