One of the many arresting images to emerge from last month’s deadly crackdown on anti-government protests in Thailand was the sight of state-of-the-art downtown multiplexes burning amid the chaos that brought Bangkok to a standstill.
While that doesn’t count much in the broader scheme of things when people are being shot, the destruction of movie-houses symbolizes just how far Bangkok had been pushed from normal life for a few weeks.
The May 19 crackdown by the Thai army on red-shirted anti-government protesters, after days of skirmishes, left more than 80 people dead and 1,800 injured.
The irony is that just days after the crackdown, the Thai filmmaking community received some of the highest kudos possible when “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, won the Palme d’Or in Cannes. The helmer, who has been a staunch critic of censorship in his country, flew out of Bangkok as the city burned to attend the fest.
Although his movies tend to have niche appeal in Thailand, there was a huge outpouring of national delight when he won.
Walking through the occupied zone in the city’s downtown, one was struck by the number of protesters who adapted movie posters to make former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, ousted by a coup in 2006, look like a hero, or to demonize the current incumbent, Abhisit Vejjajiva.
But most industry players remain upbeat, even if nerves have been badly rattled.
“People still need entertainment, and in times like this, I think people will need to go to the movies to relax (even more). Yes for now, there is some impact to the box office and film business, but with time, it should be fine. Movies have always been resilient, and where there is a need for entertainment, there will always be a need for the film business,” says Gilbert Lim, executive veep of Sahamongkolfilm Intl.
There was a direct impact on B.O. in two of the country’s flagship multiplexes — each operated by SF Cinema and
Major Cineplex — which were shuttered during the two months of protests.
The situation is getting back to normal, says Lim, as other Bangkok cinemas remain in serviceable condition and should be back up and running soon.
And because of the localized nature of the conflict, people had options to watch movies in parts of Bangkok that were not affected.
At the same time, curfews have had hit cinema attendances too.
Scott Rosenberg, managing director of consultancy/PR shingle AMW Intl., believes all countries have civil unrest of some kind or another but that the scale of the protests in Bangkok made things more difficult.
He says that companies or individuals who service the Thai location-destination sector have reported loss of some business because of the crisis. “However, the production services sector as a whole, as reported by the Thailand Film Office, was not greatly impacted,” Rosenberg says.
Many shoots in Bangkok simply skipped to other parts of the city not affected by the trouble. Only approximately four square miles of the city were experiencing disturbances.
Rosenberg cites the experience of “Elephant White” producer Frank DeMartini, who was shooting the Kevin Bacon starrer yards from the occupied zone and experienced no problems whatsoever.
With major showbiz figures still keen on Thailand as a production location, the country’s future is not as grim as the smoke on the street seemed to suggest, although some insiders say the recent and relatively peaceful election in the Philippines will have people looking in that direction more and more.
But Thailand proponents remain bullish.
“People have short memories for this type of thing,” Rosenberg says. “Thailand still has magnificent vistas and locations, and the production services industry remains as strong as ever. Life goes on.”