Rifts mar strong year for features in Thailand

Federation of National Film Assn., gov't bodies' relationship sours

BANGKOK — The Thai film biz is flourishing. Domestically, exhibs have helped Five Star Entertainment’s “Kun Pan,” unspooling on 110 screens, net more than $500,000 in its first week of Bangkok release. To compare, “A Beautiful Mind” has taken in $473,000 after three weeks in release.

And with international sales agents Fortissimo and Golden Network Asia continuing to pick up the cream of the Thai crop for overseas sales, and international film festivals and major distribution companies keeping an interested eye on new Thai films, you’d think everyone in the local industry would be happy.

You’d be wrong.

While Thai production houses are emboldened by the positive box office outlook, announcing production slates of more than 25 releases this year compared with 15 in 2001, trouble lurks.

Relations have soured between the Federation of National Film Assn., a loosely knit group of non-union guilds — including producers, directors and exhibitors — and the major government bodies overseeing and promoting the industry.

The government bodies, the Dept. of Export Promotion, the Film Board and the Tourism Authority of Thailand have initiated a series of measures, including tax cuts, to entice foreign filmmakers to use Thailand as a production location, and have offered up budgets to bolster Thai film and television product at foreign festivals and markets such as MIP, Toronto and Cannes.

While no one in the industry is at odds with those aims, the Federation, under the direction of prexy Kom Akadej, has lobbied political forces within the government to restructure oversight of the industry and place decision-making and budgetary authority under Federation control.

“If the Federation is granted control, we all know where fees will go, and it wouldn’t be into strengthening the industry,” says one government officer, patting his pocket.

The Export Promotion Dept., meanwhile, was to have a Thai booth and party in Cannes this year, its first appearance at one of the major markets, but participation was cancelled as “applications were not submitted in time.”

Behind the scenes however, Federation officials were opposed to the government agency leading the delegation, insisting the Federation should be the face Thai cinema shows to the international film community.

At the same time, there is internal dissent within the Federation itself, as Akadej’s two-year term expires next month.

Vice chairman Wisute Poolvoralaks of Tai Entertainment, once a leading contender for the presidency and much favored by the government agencies, is no longer being touted as the heir apparent. Another front runner, Somsak Techaratanaprasert, chairman of Mongkol Cinema is happy greenlighting and churning out local pics, and is said to have turned down the position.

All bets are now on Akadej ally Jaruk Kaljaruk, chairman of Kantana, which operates Thailand’s largest post-production facility Oriental Post, and which would stand to benefit greatly from Federation referrals.

In the meantime, members of the local film industry are pleased with their success. Last year, Miramax picked up local hit “Tears of the Black Tiger”; Strand picked up “Iron Ladies,” the first Thai pic to be distribbed in the U.S.; and “Jan Dara” made the rounds of fests and markets. Francis Ford Coppola is also working on an international version of epic hit “Suriyothai.”

Only time will tell whether the industry continues to churn out quality features and grows from international sales and recognition or implodes from in-fighting over vested interests.