Friday, April 9, 2010

The Charoen Nakorn Theater - Korat, Thailand

I blame it on the street beasts, those alley-dwelling howlers with their mange and their bilious notions of territory. The mongrels! Without them I'd have spent much more time exploring the dilapidated depths of the Charoen Nakorn Theater and its environs. Dispensing with angry street dogs is not my forte, however. Flight over fight is my favored option, though a pocket full of stones can come in handy at times. too. Ah, street dogs! It's a shame that I wasn't welcomed, because the Charoen Nakorn had some big-80's appeal worthy of closer inspection.

A banner covers the entrance sign to the Charoen Nakorn Theater. It's now a multi-use entertainment center featuring karaoke, snooker, Muay Thai and a restaurant, but no movie theater.

Like many of the more ambitious movie theater designs of the 1970's and 80's, the Charoen Nakorn Theater was devised as the anchor business to a fairly extensive commercial/residential plaza. Ambitious it was! The surrounding plaza contains several different thoroughfares, each one densely packed with rows of commercial-front row houses, three stories tall. Most of them are vacant today, giving it a dead zone feel even during day-light hours.

Architecturally, the entire complex looks like a 1980's vision of the future. The surrounding row houses typify the times by loosely resembling giant arcade game consoles - Pac-Man for Paul Bunyan and Tron for the 40 Foot Woman. But this future was a failed one, as are similar models throughout the country. Who would have thought that the 1980's would have been so prosperous for Thailand, and that relaxed policy on auto imports would drive private car sales through the roof? Sure, the Charoen Nakorn is just off the Mittraphap Highway, but a lack of secure parking made it lose favor to the car-friendly shopping malls that opened later. After succumbing to the profits of pornography for a few years, it finally shut down in the the early 2000's.

In the foreground, Five-Star Network's traveling cinema truck is parked down the alley, with the Charoen Nakorn Theater at the far end. The local movie distribution company keeps its offices in Charoen Nakorn plaza.

Theater at the end of a dog-infested alley

Snarling dogs kept me from getting much closer to the Charoen Nakorn than depicted above, but as luck would have it, Five-Star Network has their offices in the exact same plaza, providing me the opportunity to meet to their Assistant Director. Five-Star Network is Isan's biggest movie distributor, but not the only one - a fact which differs from the other regions of the country, each of which is presided over by a single distributor (the others in Isan are Nevada and Mongkol Major). Besides listing all of Isan's operating stand-alone theaters for me, Five-Star's Assistant Director helped clarify a few things about the distribution system in Thailand.

The three Isan distributors seem to practice a pretty fair revenue-sharing policy with the theaters they supply. They do not charge a fixed rate for the films they rent out to theaters, but rather split the revenue down the middle with the theater owners. In some cases, that probably hurts the distributors. For instance, if a small-market theater in a far-out district only has 20 customers for a two day film allotment, it's probable that the transportation costs of getting the reels to and from the theater out-weigh the revenue. Distributors take a loss, but they allow the little guys to stay in business by continuing their services. How do they make a profit then? Two ways! First, their bread and butter comes from running their own movie theaters. All the profits they collect from their own venues are theirs to keep. No need to share it with anybody except their employees. Five-Star Network makes the most of that by running a three-screen multiplex in Nong Khai and a six-screener in Korat.

Second, there are a few big shopping mall-based chains in Isan, like Major, EGV and SF, which have control over the larger movie-going markets. They provide the distributors with a steady stream of revenue. Five-Star has worked out partnerships with EGV in Korat and Major in Udon to ensure their exclusive distribution rights to those heavyweights, both of which are under the same corporate ownership. In addition, Five-Star Network has an open-air movie division which contributes yet another revenue stream.

From what I've been able to gather, distributors in other regions of the country are much tougher towards the little guys than in Isan. Northern Thailand's distributor, for example - Thana - charges a flat fee of 1000 baht every time they rent a film to a theater. So if the theater only makes 500 baht in revenue, they have to give that plus an additional 500 hundred baht from their own pocket to the distributor. In the North, there's not a single stand-alone theater that's not owned by Thana left in operation because of this nickle and dime policy. In the words of one Isan theater owner, "that's just bad business, all around."

For those remaining independent theater owners in Isan, local distributors genuinely seem to have their interests' in mind. Maybe not as much as the big money multiplexes, but more so than anywhere else in the country. That's one reason why in smaller towns like Pak Chong and Det Udom you can still see a movie on the silver screen.

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