Friday, December 25, 2009

New turf and a foreclosure sale

The Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project is about to expand its operations into the Mekong Delta region. Tomorrow evening I touch down in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon for all you traditionalists). It will mark my first foray into what will hopefully be an eye-popping, movie theater extravaganza from southern Vietnam.

Regrettably, this is also likely to be my final expedition.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Taphan Hin Rama - Taphan Hin, Phichid, Thailand

"Most people think that TV, VHS and DVD caused the death of small town theaters like this one," said the owner of the defunct Taphan Hin Rama. "That once everybody had their own home entertainment center, going to the movies became of thing of the past. Not so! It wasn't that which put us under. We were assassinated by the distribution companies."

Chalong Praditsuwan stood poised, reflectively explaining the series of events which culminated in his theater's demise.

"Before they got greedy, the distributors used to split the profits with us. It was a fair deal and both parties prospered. But as time went by, the distributors figured they could make more money without the hassle of having to race around providing the film reels to all the different theaters. So they opened their own theaters. It didn't matter if their films only got a fraction of the audience they had before, because the revenue was all theirs. They didn't have to split it with the independent theaters anymore. Yes, they continued distributing to the independents, but not before charging a flat fee for the movie which we had to pay in full regardless if it made any money or not."

Other factors took their toll as well.

"On top of that," he proceeded, "the distributors stopped paying for advertising costs - like printing posters and buying space in the papers - and left that up to the independent theaters to do. We had to compete with each other for first dibs on the reels. Whoever put on a better advertising campaign was awarded the reel first. In Taphan Hin there were two other theaters, but mine was usually the first-run theater. I spent a lot, and the result was smaller profits"

With that, Chalong dug out some old photo albums, the contents of which revealed the colorful past of his now-dormant Taphan Hin Rama. The 60 year old ex-theater owner happily recalled the various ad campaigns he staged in town to draw crowds to his enterprise. From four-meter high hand painted billboards, to horse caravans and costumed parades through the center of town. He even hired local song taew drivers to pick up patrons at a designated spot and bring them to the Taphan Hin Rama for free.

Horses were hired to parade through town adverting a Thai Western

Chalong hired a group of locals to don costumes and parade through town on a buffalo to advertise a Hong Kong period film.

Ad campaign for the movie "Gold 2" featuring a motorbike with a hang-glider attached to it.

My personal favorite, the audience before the start of a film. Notice how everybody is well dressed.

On December 17th 1979, the Taphan Hin Rama had its grand opening, with 'Supersonic Man' as its debut film.

Photos from opening day

"Each region of the country has its own distributors," continued Chalong. "All the small theater owners had to go through their regional distributors to get the films. Up here in northern Thailand, Pranakorn Films is the distributor. Nobody else is allowed to distribute in the north. It's the law. Once Pranakorn Films started to open their own theaters under the name Thana Cineplex, that was the beginning of the end for us. They raised their prices and simply pushed us out of business. Believe it or not, at one point their was at least one theater in every district of Phichid. Now there's only the Thana Cineplex in Happyland Shopping Center in the provincial capitol. Nothing else. Pranakorn Films killed the independent theaters throughout northern Thailand. They really killed a way of life."

The Taphan Hin Rama's dormant auditorium and screen

Looking towards the rear of the auditorium. To the left of the projection booth is the glassed-off soundtrack room, for patrons who wanted to watch foreign movies in their original dialogue.

The soundtrack room

The bluntness of Chalong Praditsuwan's explanation was refreshing. His critical angle was in contrast to most of the current literature on the subject, which tends to view the fall of Thailand's stand-alone and independent theaters as the inevitable result of changing consumer tastes and habits, without so much as mentioning the complicity of industry heavyweights in the process. In the case of Pranakorn Films, aside from distribution and exhibition, they also produce movies. That combination makes them a vertically integrated business, which by its very nature stifles competition. The practice might pass as permissible if there were strong evidence that efficiency gains were being shared at least equally with comsumers, but that's obviously not the case. How could it be? Now if you want to go to the movies and you live in Phichid you've got to get all the way to the provincial capitol and pay a premium. That's definitely not efficient!

Across the globe and way back in 1948, the US Supreme Court won a landmark anti-trust case (United States vs. Paramount Pictures) against the major Hollywood-based movie studios who had, over a period of time, developed their own theater chains to exclusively exhibit the films that they produced. The ruling forced the studios to sell off their theaters as a means of stimulating competition among theater owners. But more importantly, it forced them to come up with potentially better and more varied films for consumers to choose from. Maybe it's time for a case like that to be filed in Thailand.

But it would be unfair to pin the blame exclusively on the big, vertically integrated theater chains. Like Taphan Hin, smaller cities throughout Thailand have been suffering from weak economies and severe cases of brain drain for decades, with the majority of their capable young people running off to Bangkok or abroad in pursuit of careers, while abandoning their home town cinemas to childhood memory. Even Chalong's kids, now grown, have opted to reside overseas rather than settle down in little Taphan Hin and try to figure out ways to get the family business back on its feet.

In hindsight, it would be interesting to see what might have become of small town theaters like the Taphan Hin Rama had the distributors been a bit more fair.

Monday, December 21, 2009

From the many, to the few

In last Friday's edition of the Bangkok Post, Kong Rithdee wrote an article entitled Thai Cinema: The decade in review. The final section of the article is dedicated to the lack of diversity in Bangkok's vast cinema scene, despite the fact that the city has more movie screens than it's ever had before. More screens, yes. More owners, no. The near-monopolistic conditions currently afflicting the Thai movie exhibition business are an insult to an industry which once hosted a movie line-up as diverse as anywhere in the world, thanks, in part, to its wide-range of owners. Vertical integration, or the coupling of film distribution and exhibition within the respective big theater chains, likewise limits what makes it to the silver screen.

At the end of the article, Rithdee suggests that it might be time for the government to step in and play a role in opening up the nation's screens - hence people's minds - to more stimulating material. Problem is, I'm reasonably sure that the current government likes things just the way they are.

Here's the text in its entirety.

Screen savers: The multiplex factor

According to the report by Sanchai Chotiroseranee, there are now 136 multiplexes in Bangkok, offering altogether 616 screens. This is, by a modest estimate, over a 50 percent increase from year 2000. Excluding "second-class" cinemas specialising in soft-core flicks, there are now only two stand-alone theatres left, Siam and Scala.

Despite a large number of screens and hiking ticket prices, these theatre chains, ruled by Major Cineplex and SF Cinema, do not serve up a rich variety of films. More screens don't translate into more diverse kinds of movies.

Small Thai films that deserve a wider audience find it hard, if not impossible, to penetrate the lucrative slots occupied by big Hollywood releases. Sometimes SF and Major struck deals with independent filmmakers for limited release of their films (like Wonderful Town), but the short shelf-life usually didn't allow word of mouth to travel. Even Thai studio films sometimes find it exhausting to compete with new American blockbusters - hence the glut of Thai comedy and ghost films to snatch back multiplex screens.

Multiplexes are thus increasingly influential in shaping the taste of Thai audiences. Alternative cinemas such as House, established in 2005, and the veteran Lido, indeed offer choices, yet they represent less than 0.5 percent of the number of total screens in Bangkok. If creativity comes with diversity, this is another area that the government must look into as we step into the new, more competitive decade.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Kaen Kham Theater - Khon Kaen, Thailand

The frame of a street-side marquee is one of the last bits of discernible evidence that the Kaen Kham Theater exists.

At the end of the alley is the side of the Kaen Kham Theater. When it was operating, the metal frame attached to the side held giant hand painted billboards advertising the day's showing. The missing aesthetic would certainly have added some needed color to this otherwise drab urban wasteland.

To see Khon Kaen's Kaen Kham Theater is to see the word 'derelict' objectified. Stripped of all its identifying markers - sign, marquee, poster cases and ticket booth - the Kaen Kham resembles an old warehouse or meat packing plant as much as it does a movie theater. The only life it knows these days is an old woman who rents out a small room in the back of the theater and a band of vagrants who live beneath the auditorium in perpetual drunkenness. Vagrants combined with packs of stray dogs aggressively patrolling the area made my visit to the Kaen Kham one of the more on-edge theater experiences I've had in a while. But in spite of its current dismal aesthetic and downtrodden way, locals adamantly placed the rotting Kaen Kham at the pinnacle of Khon Kaen's once-illustrious cinema scene. "This was the biggest and most popular theater in town," recalled a 60-something woman running a mini-mart in the theater's equally derelict surrounding plaza. "Until business started to fall off, the Kaen Kham was the rave of the town. It was full almost every show, and that's with more than a thousand seats to fill."

Weed strewn lot at the back of the Kaen Kham Theater.

Although the structure's interior has been vacant since the reels stopped spinning about ten years ago, the Kaen Kham briefly found new life as home to a weekly market held in the open space beneath its auditorium. But that didn't last very long, apparently. This area of town lost its economic foundation when the Kaen Kham itself went out of business. The theater, after all, was the life support for the surrounding businesses. Once the movie crowds stopped coming, the plaza's shops and restaurants started to decline until it had devolved into its current state of lock-jaw decrepitude.

Behind the Kaen Kham

Granny Liam lives in a little room at the back of the theater. Prior to its closing she worked there as a cleaner. The fond memories she holds of its glory days have slowly eroded like the building itself. "The bank's got the property deed now," she claimed. "They're trying to sell it off, but ain't nobody buying this rotten old tomato. It's a big vacant mess with nothing but little old me, some mangy dogs and that gang of nut cases who sleep around the side. By the way, you'd best be careful 'round them. They're kind of the desperate type; a little unpredictable come years of white whiskey drinking. You'd do to watch your step."

Granny Liam's words were heeded. Had they not been, I may not have lived to tell you of the Kaen Kham Theater, once Khon Kaen's largest answer to the malaise of everyday life (and in an offbeat way, still very much so).

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Prince Theater - Khon Kaen, Thailand

A handsome street-side marquee and sign has been welcoming movie-goers to the Prince Theater since 1985.

"Hey Projectionist! Have you been to the Prince Theater in Khon Kaen yet?" has been the most repeated question I've gotten about any one movie theater in Thailand to date. From this common inquiry and the bit of hearsay I've heard about the place, I developed a deranged obsession with wondering about it. In my mind, the Prince took on legendary qualities. It became a theater that absolutely had to be checked out lest my life come to an incomplete close. Well last week I did just that, only to find the Prince stripped of its royal heritage; a dethroned and disemboweled movie theater noble with its guts hanging out.

Deceased royalty, the corpse of the Prince

A demo crew removes the innards

A year too late and the Prince is no more, currently undergoing a morbid transformation into an apartment building. While climbing through the eviscerated corpse of the old theater, I uncovered bits and pieces of movie memorabilia: a shredded movie poster, piece of a cardboard cut-out from a lobby display, a sliver of a movie ticket and some scraps of brittle, discarded film - the remains of a soon-to-be forgotten world.

Tommy Lee Jones on a Men in Black lobby card, trashed.

An Owen Wilson cut-out lies discarded among rubble and junk

Segment of a poster with George Clooney, shredded

A Mission Impossible 2 poster about to meet the trash heap

The remains of a movie poster in the rubble
The Prince was only 23 years old when it met its untimely death last year. It was likely one of the last stand-alone theaters to get built in Thailand. For those years it was the flagship theater of the Prince Theaters chain - a modest Khon Kaen-based film exhibition company with two other branches in Mahasarakham and Kalasin provinces respectively. After the Prince closed down about a year ago, Prince Theaters moved its Khon Kaen operations to Fairy Plaza, where they reopened in the old Fairy Cineplex - a four-screen multiplex on the mall's top floor. So if by chance you're in Khon Kaen and go to see a movie at the Fairy Cineplex, you're actually watching at the reincarnation of the Prince.

What used to be the Prince's auditorium, complete with terraced seating, is in the process of being split into two levels for apartments.

Construction workers turning the dead Prince into an apartment complex

The woman on the motorbike is Moo, an accountant for Prince Theaters. She's been employed at the company since she graduated from college. If it weren't for Moo, I may never have found out that the old Prince Theater lives on in Fairy Plaza. Otherwise I might be mourning the loss of yet another independent movie theater proprietor. Fortunately the company survives. But trouble is in the air. At the beginning of December the Bangkok-based SF Cinemas chain opened a branch in Khon Kaen's brand new Central Plaza shopping mall. SF, which is the second largest theater chain in the country after Major-EGV, is making its first foray into the Isan movie exhibition market, posing a potential threat to the local brand.

In my most rudimentary Thai, I asked Moo if SF is an enemy of Prince?

"I don't know yet," she replied. "It's still too early to tell. They just opened at the beginning of the month."

"Are you worried about them moving into the Khon Kaen market?" I probed.

"Yeah, we're a little bit worried," she confided. "We've never had to face this kind of competition before. But I think the Khon Kaen market will respond better to our products than what SF exhibits. We play movies that are dubbed in Thai. That's what our distributors (Five Star, Pranakorn Films) supply and that's what the Khon Kaen market demands. SF shows all its foreign films with their original dialogue and Thai subtitles. There's not much of a market for that in Khon Kaen. People here don't like to read movies. SF ticket prices are also about 30 percent higher than ours. There's not a whole lot of big money in Khon Kaen, so that's also to our advantage. Our 90 baht ticket price is more appropriate for the market here. In all," she concluded, "I think we'll be alright"

For the most part, Moo seemed confident that SF's entrance into the local market would not have much of an affect on Prince. I hope she's right. History, however, is not on her side. In the other up-country markets that either Major-EGV or SF have entered, the local theaters have not fared well. All of Nakon Sawan's local operations, for example, have closed since Major opened in the Big C Supercenter. The same goes for Phitsanulok and Udonthani. Here in Chiang Mai, the locally-owned Vista Gad Suan Kaew multiplex (my second home here) hangs on in spite of the Major Cineplex at Airport Plaza shopping center. The Vista Group, however, has since closed and subsequently razed its three stand-alone neighborhood theaters, along with a two-screen theater near Gad Suan Kaew. Chiang Mai's current movie theater geography is as vapid as it's been in 70 years.

As for the Prince @ Fairy Plaza, only time will tell. The Thongrompho brothers, owners of the SF empire, have definitely got some effective marketing strategies for their theaters. In Khon Kaen SF will also have the lugubrious benefit of being in the city's hot new Central shopping mall - a natural crowd drawer. They're likely to be a formidable foe for a small theater company like Prince. Nonetheless, as Moo explained, Prince will have certain natural advantages. And where it is lacking, well, I hope the Prince gets Machiavellian on its new nemesis.

The original Prince Theater, however, is nothing more.

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.