At a time when the film industry is shrouded in uncertainty, it serves as an appropriate opportunity to remember that the world of cinema has often encountered and overcome periods of decline.
The current health crisis has cinemas and theatres closed around the globe, social distancing rules affirming that in this moment of problematic unpredictability, the risk of sitting inside a closed space to watch a movie seems one too great to take on.
One such situation which has seen the cinematic industry repeatedly boom and dips with popularity is that of the film popularity within Thailand. In the 1950s and 1960s, movie theatres across Thailand were important architectural statements and centres of social and cultural life. At a time when few houses had electricity, the local movie theatre was where people came together, irrespective of class or occupation. In today’s era of shopping-mall multiplexes and movies streamed on personal devices, the popularity of the standalone cinema has become a thing of legend; few remember the once-familiar scenes of overflowing crowds spilling out onto the streets or frantic ticket buyers thrusting fists full of cash through small ticket windows.
However, while the 20-year boom between the 1960s and ’80s proved to be a vital part of Thai society, the popularity began to wane in the immediate years that followed a slump of the 1990s. In 2008, Philip Jablon began studying for a master’s degree in Thailand and, intrigued by the structural ruin of some of Thailand’s buildings, started recording the demise of the country’s standalone cinemas.
In his book Thailand’s Movie Theaters: Relics, Ruins and the Romance of Escape, Jablon began bringing together his poignant photographs and the ephemera of a vanished culture, such as highly collectable hand-painted Thai movie posters, this book records an irreplaceable slice of social, cultural and movie history.
“Architecturally, Thai movie theatres have a language of their own,” Jablon previously told Huck about his project before explaining that a surge in popularity in the late 1960s. This was, of course, sparked by the increase in a financial gain which was acquired by the US sending military and developmental aid. “A lot of that found its way into commercial development of all kinds, including movie theatres,” he added.
Adding: “I would say that at a certain time in Thailand, the movie theatre was really the epicentre of popular and commercial culture.”
While the images below offer a somewhat depressing view of architectural ruin, it does offer hope given the current climate in which the film industry finds itself within. Movie theatres may have begun to slip into a slow death across the 1990s in Thailand, but the New Wave directors emerging within the past decade are now beginning to achieve commercial and artistic success and breath new life into the art form.
Thailand’s Movie Theaters: Relics, Ruins and the Romance of Escape, created by Phil Jablon, is available to buy for £22.50 on River Books.