Thai cinema business copes with floodwater crisis

Columns

Bangkok, Thailand—As I sit and write this month’s column, water is seeping into my dining room from my flooded kitchen. Flood waters outside my home keep rising and at some point, a short time from now, they will enter the house. I must decide to stay or evacuate—not a pleasant thought.

Bangkok is experiencing its worst flooding in over 50 years—while I am experiencing the most stressful situation in my life.

But you are not interested in my situation; you want to know how the floods are affecting the movie exhibition industry in Thailand.

In a week when Paranormal Activity 3 opened, The Smurfs, Spy Kids 4: All the Time in the World and The Lion King 3D entered their second week on the big screen, and two hit Thai movies, 30+ Single on Sale and Top Secret (Wai Roon Pan Lan), continue strong at the box office, the Thai government declared a five-day public holiday as strong tides were likely to exacerbate the flooding situation throughout the city and surrounding provinces.

On Monday, Oct. 31, the last day of the mandated public holiday, I took a quick telephone survey of theatres throughout the Bangkok metropolitan area. At 11 a.m., when most theatres should have been up and operating, of the 12 that I called, not one answered the phone. (Not exactly true: A couple did have automatic answering machines with a recorded message about “membership” and a message to wait. After a few minutes I was disconnected.)

I contacted the two major theatre circuits in Bangkok, Major Cineplex and SF Cinema City to check in on flood impact. I heard back from Suparee Jayapoom, investor-relations exec at Major, and Suvannee Chinchiewchan, deputy managing director of SF Cinema. Here are their responses to my questions as of Nov. 1, 2011:

FJI: How have your theatres in Bangkok and surrounding provinces been affected by the floods?
Major: We have had to close 40 screens from about 370 screens due to the floods.
SF: We have closed only two locations out of 23 locations—at Bangyai and Ratanathibeth. [As of Nov. 3, we hear that Major Cineplex Ratchayothin had to close as well.]

FJI: Have in fact any of your theatres been damaged by flood waters? Which ones?
SF: Physically none.
Major: There is no property damage to any of our screens.

FJI: For those Thai and Western (and other Asian) movies slated to open now and in upcoming weeks, how are you rescheduling them? (The Thai film Mae Nak in 3D, for example, had to move from an Oct. 27 release to Nov. 17 and I hear that may have to be changed again.)
Major: I checked with our programming section, and all movies won’t change at all.
SF: It is the distributors’ decision whether or not to move the release date. We respect and fully support their decisions.

FJI: In U.S. dollar terms, what would your box-office losses be because of flooded theatres?

SF: It is very difficult to figure out exactly in number terms because two Thai films [30+ On Sale and Top Secret] are still doing great box office.
Major: The flood will surely have an effect on us; however, I think all business will be affected. On the positive side, when people who live in the suburbs move into the downtown area to escape the floods, in order to relieve stress from this crisis situation, some of them will go out to the movies to relax. Also, the government announced a public holiday from Oct. 27 to 31. I think our numbers will increase during this time.

FJI: As this is being written and the public holiday ends, did you see any increase in numbers over the long vacation or is box office down due to people leaving town?
Major: We checked our numbers and they seem to be on average. But we have many branches besides those in Bangkok, such as in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Pattaya and Huahin which may show an increase in numbers due to those people from Bangkok that “escaped” the floods and returned to their home provinces.

FJI: Do you really expect people to go to the movies when they are flooded in their homes? (For example, I am in Laksi and my house is flooded. Major Chaeng Wattana Village is close, but I have no way of getting to the movie to relieve my stress.) Aren’t others in the same situation? Therefore, I would think box office would decline.
Major: Frankly, in my opinion there are many people who have moved downtown, which has not yet been affected by the flood—they still must relieve stress. Our numbers may not be higher, but maybe not too low either. Average revenue is still OK. By the way, Major Chaeng Wattana is still open.

FJI (to Ms. Jayapoom from Major): Can I move in?

It is not for this reporter to judge the status of Bangkok’s exhibition industry during this crisis, but on Nov. 3 the Nation newspaper ran a short video analysis entitled “Entertainment sector crippled by floods” which said that, among other entertainment sectors, “the local film industry is feeling the effects through low attendance even though most theatres, especially those downtown, are operating normally. Movies that were promoted for late October and early November such as Top Secret and 30+ opened as scheduled. GTH producer Younguth Thongkongthun says that the postponement of films that have already started advertising activities is not a good solution.”

Part of the difficulty of living through this experience has been the political spin the various government sectors have put out dealing with the crisis. But is a crisis really the time for “spin” or straight talk?

P.S.: You can contribute to the flood relief we are organizing through PayPal at scott.rosenberg@gmail.com.

Contact Scott Rosenberg with relevant news stories at prdivision@gmail.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @scott_cos or on Facebook at D Scott Rosenberg.