Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Pyramid Theater - Ban Phai, Khon Kaen, Thailand

One train stop south of Khon Kaen city is the little town of Ban Phai. It's an average little town, as far as I could tell. Nothing too out of the ordinary. It's got a fresh market, some Sam Lor drivers, stray dogs and a mix of wooden and concrete shop houses. All the things that most little Thai towns have. But in this day and age, with nearly all the small town movie theaters put out of business, Ban Phai has an edge. It's got the Pyramid Theater.

A group of movie-goers drive home after the 11:00 AM showing of Yaem Yasothon 2. The theater is down the alley.

Billboards advertising the movie stand at the mouth of the alley.

The yellow and green semi-octagonal lobby of the Pyramid Theater, one of Thailand's last small town theaters.

Going to the movies

The SEA Theater Project has been at the fore of my meager existence for the past year now. It's brought me bizarre joys and an offbeat sense of satisfaction to document this waning form of entertainment in a rapidly changing corner of the world. As both a voyeur and participant, I have learned a lot about my surrogate homeland, albeit mostly from historical perspective. Visiting the Pyramid gave me a living point of view, however. A rare window into a social practice which is increasingly no more than nostalgic reminiscence for Thais middle-aged and above.

It was Monday the 7th of December, a national holiday in Thailand. All schools and government offices across the country were closed in honor of the King's birthday. Mum Jokmok's eagerly awaited sequel to the wildly popular Yaem Yasothon had just opened the week prior. At the Pyramid Theater, Ban Phai's last hurrah for cinemadom, an additional 11:00 AM showing of the film was tacked on to the usual schedule of two shows per day. A large turn-out was anticipated. After all, it was a national day of rest, and Yaem Yasothon is a comedy based in rural Isan. You can't get much more 'Isan' than Ban Phai. They came in droves.

A mother and son from Ban Phai examine the lobby cards and posters for Yaem Yasothon 2 in the lobby of the Pyramid Theater.

More than three-quarters of the Pyramid's 400-plus seating capacity was filled for the one o'clock showing of Yaem Yasothon 2. It was quite a spectacle! The audience, about half of whom walked to the theater, consisted mostly of families and younger teens. Unlike the tightly regulated multiplexes, where patrons are not permitted to enter the auditorium until the start of the half hour-long commercial session before to the film begins, the Pyramid opened its doors as soon as it was cleaned up from the prior showing. The energetic crowd chose their seats freely upon entrance, as the auditorium buzzed with chatter. Friends and neighbors greeted one another in passing, and folding chairs were pulled out for those lucky enough to find seats in the center aisle to put their feet on. An atmosphere of warmth prevailed. This was the Thai movie theater of lore; the community social venue so fondly recalled by Thais from across the spectrum; the pillar of unity in big cities and small towns, from the northern highlands to the southern seas, down to the sweltering streets of Bangkok. And it wasn't only alive, it was thriving; pulsating with laughter and life.

A snap shot into the Pyramid Theater five minutes before showtime. Notice the folding chairs being used as foot rests at the far end of the aisle.

When the movie finished, I ran like the wind to get out before the crowd. The few people I spoke to were a little disappointed with the film. At the outset the crowd was into it, laughing hysterically and cheering their favorite characters from part 1 as they were reintroduced. But as the movie rolled on, the laughs grew fewer and farther between. A typical case of an inferior sequel riding the original's success. Mum, however, is laughing all the way to the bank.

Movie-goers going home

An empty lobby after the film

Standing proudly next to the theater's advertising truck is Pradit Gaewsimma, owner of the Pyramid Theater. Pradit arrived shortly before show time to admire the throngs of patrons who came to watch at his theater. But as quickly as he came he departed, off to Khon Kaen city to attend to other business. He left me his business card, though, which reads "Pradit Film - purveyor of movies at sacred ceremonies and special events." In other words, he owns a traveling, out-door movie company aside from the Pyramid. Nang glang praeng, or movies in the open, was once a popular means of exhibiting movies across the country. Now it's only really prominent in Isan.

My own riveted enthusiasm for the Pyramid Theater was knocked down a notch by the sobering account of this man, the theater manager, who took the time to give me the dirty details of the movie theater business in rural Isan. "The distributors squeeze our profits" he explained. "On good days we'll gross 10,000 baht (about US300), but the distributors charge exorbitant rates. After paying them and then taxes, we're hardly left with enough to pay ourselves." His grim revelation shook the fool out of me. "Sure, you saw it," he continued "It was mobbed up here today. But that's just once in blue moon. Only when a Mum movie comes around, that's what this audience wants to see. They're not interested in Hollywood junk, but more often then not that's what the distributors send us. Then they got the nerve to charge all that money for the movies. They really want us to go under! But we get by! Yeah, by the skin of our teeth, we get by."

The Pyramid Theater: serving Ban Phai since 1976, before the town even had electricity.


  1. This is one of your best posts. But why would the big distributors want to kill the industry that supports them? It makes no economic sense. But, then of course, people do not always act in their own long term self interest.

  2. The distributors also own the multiplexes and in a few cases the movie production companies. They have no incentive to split profits with independent theater owners if they can exhibit their own films and keep it all. Antitrust law in Thailand is apparently pretty weak.

    I'll try to explain a little more in depth in a coming post.

  3. I also read recently an article regarding digital cinema. Hollywood will subsidise the
    exhibitors' investment in digitising the projection. Thai multiplexes will benefit but maybe not old stand alone cinemas. So it maybe another blow for them.