Golden Village Multiplex was born of a common vision 25 years ago to develop theatrical cinema in Singapore. And, while that period has seen numerous changes, the ambition has endured largely intact.

At a time when Singapore’s movie theaters had, for the most part, been dynastically controlled, the joint venture was formed by Village Roadshow group, looking for expansion beyond its native Australia, and by Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest. For more than two decades, Golden Harvest had been one of Asia’s most prolific and globally known film production studios, famous for its series of Bruce Lee action films in the early 1970s. With the decline of Hong Kong’s preeminence as a cinema production superpower, expansion of exhibition and distribution was a way forward.

The palimpsest of GH’s and VR’s theatrical expansion dreams can still be seen across Asia. The “GV” in Malaysia’s No. 2 cinema circuit TGV is the legacy of Golden Harvest and Village Roadshow cooperation, though they no longer have an ownership position. Similarly, India’s leading circuit, PVR, also references Village Roadshow in its name. GH still has positions in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and was a multiplex pioneer in China. Singapore represents the apogee of the two companies’ collaboration, where the Venn diagrams have the most overlap.

In hindsight, the timing of the GV launch was not ideal. Even though the young Singapore had, against the odds, pulled off the establishment of a new multicultural nation, the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s, the SARS outbreak in 2003 and the uncertainties brought by Hong Kong’s handover meant GV was born in a period of economic adversity. It opened Singapore’s first modern multiplex in Yishun district in 1992. One of the novelties of the new complex: telephone booking.

Clara Cheo, CEO for the past four years and a 21-year veteran of the company, describes the corporate history as a game of two halves. The first decade was one of hand holding by the parent companies.

“It was a challenging time to try to build a business. … There were moments we feared we were in a sunset industry.”
Clara Cheo

“It was a challenging time to try to quickly build a business,” says Cheo. “With a high degree of piracy and the rise of the VCR, there were moments we feared we were in a sunset industry.”

The second period saw emerging management maturity and the company sailing into clearer waters as the market leader in Singapore. Occasionally, there has been talk that one or the other parent might consider selling its stake — thus triggering a right of first refusal by the other.

Indeed, Golden Village could soon start its 26th year under different ownership, however, as Village Roadshow announced to the Australian Stock Exchange on May 22 that it is in talks to sell its 50% stake in GV.

GV’s market strength and its reliable profitability have contributed a degree of financial stability to the two parents’ balance sheets.

Precisely pinpointing the beginning of the new era, sometime around 2000, is moot. The opening of a multiplex in the massive, harbour-front shopping complex at VivoCity provides a pointer. Built to GV’s own design specifications, the 15-screen multiplex opened in 2006 and remains the largest theater complex in the country and a flagship for the company.

The second phase has seen GV better tailor its offering to Singapore market conditions. That has involved understanding of the different sub-markets within a country that is only 31 miles wide, the development of high-end facilities at GV’s cinemas within the city-state’s destination malls, and smaller units at suburban malls, in the commuter belt. In this hinterland, patrons are more likely to have come from home and to turn up in shorts and T-shirts than they would be at downtown venues such as Suntec City, where office workers jostle with convention delegates and tourists.

In 1999, the company opened GV Grand at Great World. The six-screen complex was the first to include a theater branded as “Gold Class,” with upgraded audio and visual facilities and higher prices. The Gold Class concept has since been rolled out at three other destination mall locations: Katong, Suntec City and VivoCity.

Great World was also the site of GV’s only Imax theater installation. One theater was converted to house an Imax celluloid projector, but it closed in 2004 and the group did not upgrade when Imax began introducing digital systems. With it early emphasis on natural world and educational titles, the package may have been too early for Singapore audiences.

“For us it was the wrong product at the wrong location,” says Cheo. “We have our own premium large format screens, including GV Max, a 22-meter screen that opened in VivoCity in 2016.”

Golden Village prides itself on innovations in ticket buying, as well as technological advances inside the cinema.

Technology has become a significant part of the experience that GV offers its patrons in other ways too. The country’s general labor shortage and its restrictions on imported workers mean that many Singapore businesses have turned to technological solutions. Over the past five years, GV has developed its Digital Box Office concept in order to reduce its requirement for low-skilled workers. That has seen the expansion of online booking systems, onsite equipment that accepts cash and credit cards and the introduction of paperless tickets (Quicktix.) Based on QR codes that can be sent to a mobile device and carried through automatic ticket barriers, the process eliminates queueing to purchase or collect pre-booked tickets.

To do this, GV developed its own iGV mobile app which not only facilitates booking and seat selection, but also allows the company to promote upcoming films through online previews.

That’s a boon for a Singapore population that is highly active online – Internet connection speeds in Singapore are among the highest in the world – and obsessed by social media. While one downside of the Singaporean digital obsession is that cinemagoers actively compare prices, thus limiting the exhibitors’ ability to raise ticket tariffs, it also means that GV has been able to switch its marketing methods.

“We still do above-the-line advertising, but only for cinema openings,” says Su Yin Ching, director, marketing and customer retention. “The rest is digital, which is both targeted and traceable.”

The app, GV’s membership program (skewing 51% female) and other electronic marketing allow the firm to multiply the range of approaches to cinemagoers. Promotions include date nights, men’s nights and even magic-themed evenings.

Similarly, digital tech allows targeted marketing of alternative content to specific fan groups. As is common in other parts of Southeast Asia, GV has a small but growing business screening live concerts and live Japanese anime shows. (Live sports, however, has not taken off in the same way. For the exhibitor, sports may require additional licenses, while for fans there are problems of significantly different time zones.) Movie club members are offered discounts on Tuesdays.

The company is also involved in film distribution, through its GV Pictures subsidiary. “It makes sense to have our own supply,” says Sharanjit Kaur, director, programming.

The Hollywood majors all have their own releasing units in Singapore, so GV’s operations vary from acquisitions to co-distribution deals with the country’s independent distributors. In some years, GV Pictures has been involved in up to 100 titles per year, but lately that has fallen to 70. Its recent acquisitions include “John Wick” from Lionsgate, and “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” from EuropaCorp.

Although mainstream Hollywood movies dominate Singapore’s box office, the counterbalance may help ensure diversity and respond to the changes in the audience. Singapore has a large Indian population and Indian films, especially Tamil-language titles, do well. Similarly, while many Singaporeans grew up watching Hong Kong movies, a larger mainland Chinese population in Singapore is now increasingly watching the new generation of Chinese CGI-heavy films.

“Singapore films have also evolved from the simple genres they were previously, to more sophisticated dramas such as ‘Ilo Ilo’ and ‘Apprentice’ today,” says Kaur.

That makes it particularly appropriate that GV is celebrating its anniversary with a short film competition, the GV25 Film Shorts, to further encourage local talent. Eight shortlisted candidates will be meeting with judges in June, before an online poll in September and a private screening of the final three in October.