Thailand’s film business suffered during the country’s civil unrest — and at least one arthouse cinema shuttered — but the situation is now getting back to normal, Liz Shackleton reports.

It was somewhat ironic that as Apichatpong Weerasethakul became the first Thai director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes last month, his country was still reeling from the civil unrest that left more than 80 people dead and 1,800 injured.

Although Apichatpong is not widely known back home – he’s an independent filmmaker working outside of the mainstream – his win was widely celebrated in Bangkok as a bright spot during troubled times. And it was a much-needed morale-booster, for while political violence is nothing new in Thailand, the unrest in May was the worst the country has seen for many decades. In addition to leaving scars on the national psyche, it had a negative impact on many business sectors, including the film industry.

When the anti-government protestors, known as the red-shirts, retreated from a military crackdown on May 19, they torched scores of buildings in central Bangkok, including the Central World shopping mall, which houses the SF World multiplex, and the historic 800-seat Siam Theatre. Even before violence flared up, major cinemas including SF World and the Siam Paragon, operated by Major Cineplex, had been closed for weeks as the red-shirt protests had shut down the city centre.

“In the end we lost one arthouse cinema – others in the area were saved in time – but those cinemas were closed for a month before the fires, so it affected box office for all movies released from early April onwards,” says Five Star Entertainment’s Amy Iamphungporn.

Local films such as Sahamongkol’s Ong Bak 3 and GMM Tai Hub’s The Little Comedian are among the releases which suffered, although it’s understood that Hollywood release Iron Man 2 performed only slightly below expectations. The situation is now returning to normal, although release schedules are being shuffled, and SF World remains closed until renovations are completed at the Central World shopping mall.

The protests have also affected the Director’s Screen programme of arthouse screenings which was scheduled to restart at SF World in June. “The programme was already postponed due to the cinema’s closure, and we’re still waiting on confirmation of when SF World will reopen, although it should be in a few months from now,” says Extra Virgin co-founder Mai Meksawan who organises the screenings. 

In addition to the impact on local box office, there is also concern about the country’s status as a major location for overseas shoots. Thailand regularly hosts Hollywood and Asian feature films, TV series, music videos and commercials, and is widely regarded as one of the safest and easiest Asian countries to work in. When The Weinstein Company’s Shanghai, which recently premiered in Beijing, was refused permission to shoot in mainland China, it was Thailand that the producers immediately turned to.

Scott Rosenberg, managing director of Bangkok-based consultancy AMW International, says that some companies and individuals who service overseas shoots have lost business, but that the production services sector as a whole, as reported by the Thailand Film Office, was not hugely impacted. “Nothing has really changed because of the civil unrest – people have short memories for this sort of thing,” says Rosenberg. “Thailand still has magnificent vistas and locations and the production services industry remains as strong as ever.”

Most productions opted to stay in Thailand, but shifted to locations further away from the protests and subsequent violence, which were contained within a four square mile radius in central Bangkok. Thai director Prachya Pinkaew’s English-language debut, Elephant White, produced by Nu Image/Millennium, was shooting in the city throughout the protests and was not affected.

“We were filming 10 minutes away from the [red-shirts] encampment and we couldn’t tell anything was going on,” says the film’s producer Frank DeMartini. “Of course we were on the phone with our bonding agent daily and we had contingency plans to move the shoot if necessary, but we had no problem except for small inconveniences with traffic delay.”

Meanwhile, Thailand’s major film events appear to be going head as planned, although the Bangkok International Film Festival may be pushed back from its September slot to later in the year. The World Film Festival of Bangkok will run as scheduled from November 4-15.

But while Thailand’s reputation as a filmmaking hub remains strong in the short-term, producers who are considering shooting there should probably keep one eye on the country’s political situation. Trouble could flare up again because, although the ruling coalition is stable for now, there is a deep rift in Thai society between the rural poor, represented by the red-shirts, and the “yellow-shirt” urban elite. Also of concern is the failing health of the long-reigning king who is highly revered in Thailand and has kept the country together during previous upheavals.

If Thailand were to become unstable, it stands to lose shoots to its formally troubled neighbours, such as Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines, which also have stunning scenery and ironically these days are relatively serene. However most of these countries, particularly Cambodia, still have a long way to go to catch up with Thailand on filmmaking infrastructure and expertise.