A livewire has been behind the Golden Screen Cinemas these decades, with a Mad Men bag of marketing tricks, writes Subhadra Devan
“I WATCHED soft porn in the cinema,” says Golden Screen Cinemas’ Liew Aing Suan with a chuckle.
“I was in my teens,” recalls the senior manager (cinema exhibition), who is calling it a day after 21 years with the cinema group which just turned 25 on April 1.
The Penangite couldn’t remember the title, but she’s seen movies galore since those days. But she remembers her relationship with the celluloid world with clarity and humour.
An avid moviegoer who started young, Liew would go to the movies with her mother and grandmother. “That was when the cinema seats didn’t have numbers, so you had to go early and book the seats. Town criers would distribute pamphlets about the movies.”
She says she used to keep the ticket stubs and rate the movies. She remembers vividly when the movie, The World Of Suzie Wong, was screened in Penang. “There was a Miss Cheongsam contest, and the girls would be at the cinema before the show. Cheongsam makers had good business. When the winners were chosen, the girls went on floats along the main streets. I always remember that event... you can do things with movies.”
As a throwback to her family cinema outings, Liew started matinee screenings for senior citizens, about a decade ago. “I saw that the older folk were bored during the day. They had money, so why not come to the cinema in the daytime, walk around, and go back before the traffic jam starts.
“When we held it for the first few times, I saw old people getting help from their children to enter the cinema. Some hadn’t been in a cinema in 50 years, so they were shocked at the sound.”
People started coming back to the cinemas with the premiere of Jurassic Park in 1993, says Liew.
“It was held at Rex Cinema in Jalan Sultan, Kuala Lumpur. It was the first cinema with a new sound system (Digital Theatre Systems) for the film, and people were queueing from early morning to get frightened and jump with the sound system. The queue went round the block.
“That was when people came back to the cinemas. Before that, the cinemas were being turned into furniture centres, warehouses, and whatnot.”
Looking at GSC’s history, today’s cinema leader with 197 screens in 30 locations, started from a merger backed on another merger.
In 1987, the country’s two major cinema chains — PPG Group and Golden Harvest (Int) Ltd of Hong Kong — set up Golden Communications to run a chain of cinemas leased from pioneer company Shaw Brothers.
In 1997, Golden Communications merged with Cathay Organisation and GSC was born.
Liew says she came from the retail side in the PPB Group to set up Cinead, the marketing and cinema exhibition operations of GSC. “This was six months before GSC opened its biggest theatre — at Mid Valley.”
When Jurassic Park opened, Liew was running Cinead. Cinema tickets were RM6-RM7. Most local cinemas had a dress circle and first class.
“The old GSC office in Sect 11, Petaling Jaya, also had a dress circle and first class for its preview room! So for private screenings for clients, all wanted to sit in the dress circle.”
Liew’s marketing strategies seem to be in the league of Mad Men “tricks”. For instance, The 1990 Dances With Wolves blockbuster was the first time a cinema company did a joint movie promotion with another company.
“It was so expensive to bring in but a challenge,” says Liew of the Kevin Costner starrer. “So, I went to Diner’s Club which was changing features in its charge card, and the tagline was ‘Breaking New Frontiers’.”
Then came the Jackie Chan movies, which was tied in as Guinness Megamovies. “This was the first time we started a redemption exercise for movie tickets. We asked people to bring in Guinness bottle cap liners in exchange for tickets.
“The movie was held at PJ State, and people were queueing at 6pm. I remember the coffeeshop owners came and started pouring out the liners they had... but they still could only get two tickets,” she says with a laugh.
“And we boo booed then, because we gave out tickets from the front, the A seats nearest the stage. All hell broke lose. We learnt from that.”
While Chan films became synonymous with Guinness, Jet Li was tied to Carlsberg and appealed to a younger crowd, she adds.
But the hottest cinema event in the 1990s for Liew was the world premiere of Golden Eye in 1995.
“This was the new Bond, Pierce Brosnan. We went to Dunhill for funds and a tie-up. Dunhill covered 60 to 70 per cent of the streets with billboards, buntings promoting the movie, nationwide.
“I was at Ruby Cinema, in Seapark. Ruby was an old cinema, and the box clerks or cashiers sat behind cages. They passed tickets through a little hole.
“To redeem the movie tickets, people brought 25-centimetre high stacks of newspapers. It was a crush at the lobby. Somebody had closed the collapsible gate, and I saw people walking on heads to reach the counter. There were many more outside who couldn’t get in. I saw faces at the bottom of the crowd, trying to get fresh air.
“When I called the others at the other cinemas, like the Bangsar Shopping Centre (with two halls), people were walking on the parapet wall to reach the cinema. It was terrifying.
“The pandemonium was nationwide. In one location, in East Malaysia, the FRU had to be called in. I was worried that someone would die.”
The other highlight was for the movie, Star Wars (Episode 1). “I worked with Sydney, Hong Kong and Los Angeles, different time zones, and we were rushing to open the movie at a new cinema, Summit USJ.”
GOLD CLASS EXPERIENCE
In 1999, GSC opened 18 screens at Mid Valley with Anna And The King. “It was shot locally and most of the cast were Malaysians. It gave exposure to the new cinema and Gold Class. We were worried, about how to sell 18 screens, but bookings for Gold Class were never-ending. Everyone wanted to book gold class — royalty, politicians, companies. That movie helped us a lot.”
GSC Mid Valley, Asia’s largest multiplex then with 18 screens, also started screening arthouse, award-winning, non-mainstream and foreign language films at its International Screens for the first time here.
In 2007, GSC opened its boutique cinema called GSC Signature at The Gardens Mall to mark its 20th anniversary. Liew oversaw every detail of the setup, inspired by her days at the cinema and the film, Cinema Paradiso.
The boutique cinema is luxurious even by today’s standards, with two Gold Class and five Premiere Class auditoriums, and three F&B outlets.
There was a time when the cinema chains were mainly distributors for Chinese and HK films. “We had so many previews. And I don’t speak any Chinese dialect. I have to read subtitles. And I don’t like violent films.
“At one preview, Jet Li’s Once Upon A Time In China, I slept through it. But the movie was a real blockbuster,” says Liew, who regales with her tagline “If I sleep through the preview, it’s a hit, but if I am awake, oh dear”.
“Now it’s time to take a rest. Don’t ask me, ‘Are you sure?’” she adds with a laugh.