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

Domestically Challenged Thai Films Find Growth in Neighboring Countries

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.”