Golden Screen Cinemas CEO Koh Mei Lee shares insights into the future of moviegoing

The country’s largest cinema operator is redefining the experience with Aurum TRX.

Koh assumed the position of CEO in 2002 and took on the position of chairman at the Malaysian Association of Film Exhibitors in November 2021 (Photo: SooPhye)

There is something about your first cinema experience that you will always remember. It captures the breathtaking beauty of storytelling unfolding on a larger-than-life screen and has the power to transport you to worlds beyond imagination. The magic of cinema continues to linger in your heart long after the credits roll.

Is it no wonder that cinemas continue to flourish for this reason, captivating audiences around the globe? American film director Francis Ford Coppola once said: “I think cinema, movies and magic have always been closely associated. The very earliest people who made films were magicians.” And we couldn’t agree more.


The evolution of cinema in Malaysia

Depending on who you ask, each generation would have experienced cinemas very differently.

People in the kampung started their cinematic experience with wayang kulit, bangsawan shows and eventually makeshift outdoor movie setups. Travelling cinema companies would visit rural areas and set up temporary screens in open spaces, and all the village folk, young and old, would gather from near and far to watch the latest movie.

The country’s first cinema, the Coliseum Theatre, was opened in 1920 by Chua Cheng Bok — one of Malaya’s most prominent businessmen in the first half of the 20th century — on Batu Road, now known as Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman, Kuala Lumpur. The Art Deco-style building, which still stands proudly to this day, primarily screens movies from India.

Cinemas back then were located in major cities, making it a rare treat for rural folks who would have to travel long distances for a cinematic experience. They would traverse from far-flung areas, sometimes even spending hours on buses or bicycles, just to catch a glimpse of the silver screen in Shaw, Cathay, Kapitol, Rex, Lido and the like until the rise of multiplexes in the 1990s.

When Options meets Koh Mei Lee, CEO of Golden Screen Cinemas Sdn Bhd (GSC), at the spanking new Aurum Theatre at The Exchange TRX in KL, naturally the conversation starts with the history of the company.

“Before we dive into the expansion of GSC, let’s revisit a bit of history about how it was established. It is quite intriguing, actually. GSC was founded in 1987 through a joint venture between Hong Kong’s Golden Harvest and Malaysian conglomerate PPB Group to take over the leases of Shaw Brothers. In the early days, cinemas were mostly standalones or perhaps dual-plex, but those have gradually vanished over time. Now, all we see are multiplexes.”


ScreenX, the world’s first multi-projection cinematic platform that gives moviegoers a 270-degree viewing experience (Photo: GSC)

Largest cinema operator

Koh highlights that the trajectory for future development was firmly established in 1999 when GSC opened in Mid Valley Megamall during a recession. “It was an ambitious call. When it opened with 18 screens, it became the largest cineplex in Southeast Asia and it later expanded to 21. Subsequently, the industry and GSC underwent a significant evolution due to the proliferation of multiplexes, aligning with the mushrooming of shopping malls.” This symbiotic relationship made cinema-going considerably more accessible to the public.

“Back then, we used 35mm film. We’ve witnessed the shift from film to digital, with everything now being fully digital. This transition has significantly increased efficiency and flexibility in terms of programming. With a multiplex of 18 screens, for example, it’s incredibly simple — you just download the Digital Cinema Package and can play it across all screens. Gone are the days of dealing with reels and reels of film, and the transition has undoubtedly helped in the expansion of cinemas,” she says.

“That is a little bit of history but our vision has always been the same: to deliver future-ready entertainment in Malaysia and beyond as GSC has always been a game-changer that pioneers unique services and seamlessly integrates experiences for moviegoers.

“As the market leader, we believe that innovation is ingrained in our DNA and is essential to driving our transformation plans and growth strategies forward. Our focus extends beyond simply watching movies. We strive to offer a complete lifestyle experience, which includes introducing food and beverage establishments, merchandising, ready-to-eat food options and various unique selling points (USPs) exclusive to GSC. Our goal is to deliver a comprehensive 360-degree experience for consumers, setting us apart from the other exhibitors in the industry.”


Aurum Theatre at The Exchange TRX (Photo: GSC)

Leading the way

Koh assumed the position of CEO in 2002 and took on the position of chairman at the Malaysian Association of Film Exhibitors in November 2021. When asked if she felt daunted upon stepping into the role, her response was a resounding yes. However, she credits her team, many of whom have been with GSC for decades, for helping her navigate through numerous challenges over the years.

“We’ve been able to work together well and stuck together through obstacles such as economic recessions and technological disruptors like television, DVDs, offline piracy and now, online piracy. We’ve always been committed to the industry and believe in the enduring appeal of movie-going as one of the most affordable and enjoyable forms of entertainment accessible to many.

“The demand for luxury experiences across various sectors such as food, fashion and cars, has consistently been on the rise. Given this trend, why not extend the concept to cinemas? There is a market where people seek to indulge themselves and enjoy a movie in opulent surroundings that stimulate all their senses. We firmly believe such a market exists.”

And that is how GSC initiated Signature, a hybrid concept which blends the elements of both premium and mass experiences at The Gardens Mall, KL.

Despite the challenges of venturing into unexplored territory, Koh and her team were fuelled by their confidence in the plan’s potential success. They conducted meticulous research on demographics, consumer habits and location analysis to ensure they brought something fresh and innovative to the market.

The launch of Signature marked the first step towards realising their vision. “Later, when Aurum came to be, we were encouraged by the positive response to the outlets in The Gardens and The Mall, Mid Valley Southkey in Johor. That inspired us to further enhance the cinema experience with Aurum at The Exchange TRX.”

This truly reflects their dedication to redefining the standards of luxury movie-going that rival even the world’s best.

The next level

Spanning 120,000 sq ft over four levels and with 800 seats across 11 exquisitely decorated halls, Aurum TRX, GSC’s 56th cinema location, now stands as the largest ultra-luxe entertainment experience in Southeast Asia. Launched in February, each of the halls is designed with a different theme and unique style guaranteed to take your breath away. Ticket prices range from RM70 to RM440.

For avid movie buffs seeking the ultimate cinematic escapade, the IMAX with Laser Hall features 12-channel sound and reclining seats and is the perfect choice for action-packed movies. Additionally, the ScreenX Hall is a fantastic option that comes with a 270-degree screen for a panoramic viewing experience. According to Koh, this setup is ideal for enjoying your favourite concerts on celluloid.

She explains, “When watching Bohemian Rhapsody, you’ll feel like you’re actually in Wembley Stadium. Similarly, Top Gun offers a different experience where you can see peripheral action like landings or planes flying by. This unique experience is exclusive to GSC.” The IMAX and ScreenX tickets come with a choice of food and beverages.

The four Escape Studio halls are meticulously designed around popular movie and iconic pop culture references, ensuring they are Instagram-worthy while maintaining comfort and offering an exceptional movie-going experience. These halls also boast unique design themes: the La Romance Hall takes after the romantic atmosphere of Paris and the love stories depicted on the silver screen; the vibrant Neon Nippon Hall instantly transports you to the bustling streets of Shinjuku in Tokyo; the Couture Hall exudes modern sophistication with monochromatic themes accented by pops of bright red à la The Devil Wears Prada; and finally, the Rhapsody Hall pays homage to classic film scores, with music notes adorning the walls.

For those in search of the ultimate luxury in moviegoing, the two Getha Lux Suites stand out as the top choice. Elevating the experience even further, the existing Aurum Theatres in The Gardens KL and The Mall, Mid Valley Southkey, the newly designed Getha Lux Suites at Aurum TRX boast state-of-the-art Getha recliners and a built-in mini fridge stocked with snacks and beverages. Ideal for longer movies, these new and improved recliners come with wireless charging ports, dimmable lights, plush blankets and complimentary bedroom slippers, ensuring you feel right at home as you indulge in ultimate comfort.

Speaking of which, the Comfort Cabins, inspired by the magical Grand Theatre, is best for the longest of movies, thanks to its new Stressless recliners, equipped with patented technology to provide well-rounded support.

No matter which hall you choose, every movie-goer will receive a complimentary dish and drink with the Aurum Pass. And of course, the popcorn is “elevated” too, with gourmet options like black truffle and dark chocolate, in addition to classics like caramel and sea salt.


Hokkaido Table offers a first-of-its-kind omakase experience within the cinema premises (Photo: GSC)

Big plus

Additionally, Aurum TRX houses two dining establishments. The first is Hokkaido Table, a Japanese-Italian restaurant and bar that offers a first-of-its-kind omakase experience within the cinema premises, delighting consumers with the freshest, seasonal produce. A sneak peek of the menu made our mouths water. Choose from sashimi, spicy salmon sushi rolls, lobster linguine, wagyu sirloin A5 Miyazaki Bistecca and tiramisu. The omakase menu changes monthly and requires a two-day advance booking period.

Additionally, Kissa Café and Diner, a Japanese-Western-inspired café that exudes nostalgic Hollywood and modern kissaten vibes, serves up comfort food such as soup, sandwiches, pasta, ramen and noodles.

With menus curated to satisfy discerning palates, various occasions may be catered for, from romantic date nights (as evidenced by the recent Valentine’s Day bookings) to business luncheons, meetings or simply an enjoyable nightcap. Both outlets are open to all.


Unstoppable force

The launch of Aurum TRX marks another significant achievement for Koh. In 2021, GSC acquired MBO in a move considered ambitious. She explains, “We’ve always been deeply committed to the industry and believe that cinema-going will continue to thrive post-pandemic. As I mentioned earlier, watching movies in theatres is one of the most enjoyable and affordable out-of-home entertainment activities. The acquisition provided us with an opportunity to strengthen our leadership position, increasing our market share from about 40% to 52%.”

Furthermore, the cinemas acquired through the merger complement its existing chain. Where GSC has a strong presence in major cities and the Klang Valley, MBO has a larger footprint in smaller cities. This has allowed GSC to tap into a different audience altogether.

Also under Koh’s leadership, GSC ventured out of Malaysia. “In 2013, we had the opportunity to invest in the third-largest chain in Vietnam — Galaxy Studio. They were looking for partners who would not just be investors but also provide value add and help them expand their chain because of the leadership position we have in the country. We’ve been established for more than 37 years. Vietnam has more than 100 million people and a very young demographic. So, it was a great opportunity for us to expand our growth outside of Malaysia.”

She recalls memorable moments, such as winning Gold/Platinum in the Putra Brand Awards for 10 consecutive years in the entertainment category. Its 2023 edition was particularly special as the company was inducted into the Hall of Fame. “On a personal note, meeting [Hong Kong star] Tony Leung at the Goldfinger Premiere in Malaysia last December was a dream come true, as I am a long-time fan of his movies. Hosting him at Aurum TRX was indeed memorable.”

Reflecting on the most challenging period of her career, she says “it was undoubtedly during the pandemic when cinemas were unable to open for a prolonged period of time and we had to re-strategise to seek alternative revenue streams, and reconnect with our loyal movie-goers through digital and social platforms. We also forged a stronger bond as a team during this time”.

As movie-goers were unable to visit cinemas, GSC brought the experience to their homes, with delivery services for much-loved concession items, including the popcorn. It also took the opportunity to expand its offerings by launching a range of ready-to-eat snacks, such as gourmet popcorn and crispy salmon skin.

There is a silver lining to every cloud, she says, and amid the challenges, one thing remains certain: the enduring magic of cinema which reminds us of the power of storytelling to uplift, unite and inspire.


This article first appeared on Mar 18, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.

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