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Domestically Challenged Thai Films Find Growth in Neighboring Countries

Single Lady Thai Cinema
Courtesy of Sahamongkol International

At home and abroad, Thai cinema continues its struggles on many fronts. As it tries to cope with domestic unpredictability, it also fights for its fair share of international exposure.

Regarded as the most mature of Southeast Asia’s film industries, Thai cinema has found itself in a familiar, almost schizophrenic pattern: studio-produced commercial films hope for the best at local box office and the burgeoning markets of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos — though the chance of travelling beyond that is close to nil.

Meanwhile independent and arthouse directors rely mostly on foreign or private investors, as they strive for the glory of the festival circuit while their prospects for both domestic and international sales remain slim.

Last year’s top-grosser was the sixth installment of the historical epic “Legend of King Naresuan” ($3.2 million). Placing second was “Freelance” (aka “Heart Attack”), an edgy romantic comedy by Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit and produced by the now-split GTH ($2.4 million). The studio also scored with high school comedy “May Who?” ($2 million), while Sahamongkol Film Intl. had success with monk horror pic “Arpati” ($1.4 million) and Transformation Film had romantic comedy “Single Lady” to the rescue ($900,000).

The first hurdle is the mood of the domestic audience. While the market is relatively stable, of the 63 titles released last year only 17 earned over 10 million baht ($280,000), a minimum psychological threshold, as the rest languished below that level. (The estimated production cost of a studio film in Thailand is between $400,000 and $700,000.)

International distribution offers some relief. In the past Thai horror and martial-arts films could test the European and even American markets, but now local studios aim for something closer. Almost all top Thai titles of late (except “King Naresuan”) were released in nearly every Southeast Asian country, capitalizing on the growing multiplex scene in Cambodia, Laos, and even Myanmar, apart from the established territories of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore. Cultural proximity and recognizable stars also allow seamless regional cross-over, a natural advantage that doesn’t apply to Western markets.

“The demand is surging in the new markets of Southeast Asia,” says Yongyoot Thongkongtoon, senior director of international business affairs of GDH 559 (formerly GTH). “More multiplexes mean more slots, and Thai films fill them nicely, but going beyond Southeast Asia, like we did in the early 2000s, is now difficult.”

Sangar Chatchairungruang, CEO of Transformation Film, a producing arm of the country’s biggest theater chain, Major Cineplex, confirms that his focus is firmly on the domestic market and Southeast Asia. Yet in a move that may shake things up, Major has entered a partnership with Korean giant CJ, and the new outfit CJ-Major Entertainment is already planning to remake Korean hits for the Thai market this year, beginning with “Miss Granny.”

“More multiplexes mean more slots, and Thai films fill them nicely, but going beyond Southeast Asia, like we did in the early 2000s, is now difficult.”
Yongyoot Thongkongtoon

“We are developing new projects including action and horror films,” says Chatchairungruang. “This partnership will help us get the content, the know-how and probably a new market.”

Major also backs 2016’s biggest hit so far, the wacky monk comedy “Luang Pee Jazz 4G,” a small project that has made a sizable $4.2 million at the B.O.; it has already been released in neighboring countries.

On the arthouse/indie front, the struggle comes in different guises. One of the best reviewed and most well-traveled titles of 2015 was Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Cemetery of Splendor,” a multinational co-production that enjoyed widespread praise and exposure, and yet still hasn’t been shown at home. Besides Weerasethakul, who’s a brand unto himself, other non-mainstream talent has to improvise to raise funds and still faces the uphill task of finding distribution.

For instance, Jakrawal Nilthamrong’s Tiger Award-winning “Vanishing Point” was made thanks to a grant from the university where the director teaches. Despite the critical praise, the film hardly made any money when it was released on one screen.

“Relying on foreign grants isn’t as easy as before because competition is intense,” says independent producer Soros Sukhum, whose latest projects include Critics’ Week selection “Diamond Island.”

“We have been relying more on private investors. But still, the whole mentality and approach has to change. We’re now content with the budget of $100,000 and with festival invites. But that’s not enough. We’ve done some good films, but we should look for a higher budget and get more serious about making something that can be sold. Something more accessible, say, like ‘Ilo llo.’ And we need stronger scripts, which is still our weakness.”

The director who expressly attempts to straddle both sides of the industry is Thamrongrattanarit. His studio-produced “Freelance” won most local awards and grossed handsomely, and yet the director of 2014’s cult hit “Mary Is Happy, Mary Is Happy” says he wants prove that it’s possible to shift between indie and mainstream, taking advantage of the best of both worlds. In Cannes, he will bring his new non-studio project, “Die Tomorrow,” as part of the Thai Pitch program.

“Independent Thai films are doing better in Thai theaters,” says Thamrongrattanarit. “Meanwhile my studio film ‘Freelance’ has been to a few festivals. Local or international, mainstream or non-mainstream, if you know what you want as a filmmaker, it’s not a problem.”