Thailand reaches out to Hollywood studios

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As I write this in Los Angeles at the “Produced By Conference”/2011 AFCI Location Show, billboards for The Hangover Part II adorn the streets, offering Thailand free publicity as the movie pulls in over $200 million in its first week of release.

The Thailand Film Office, recognizing its advantage, spent a few days before the show visiting with several major studios to find out how the Thai government can be more reactive to filmmakers’ needs.

"It’s important while we have a bit of the spotlight to build on our success and reach out to the studios and other producers to let them know we want to help them realize their projects in Thailand," said Wanasiri Morakul, director of the Thailand Film Office.

A testament to its present success, participants at the trade show, while fewer than in the past, were more qualified—that is, they had actual projects in hand they wanted to talk about.

“Thailand’s location industry has been around for over 50 years, going back to Mike Todd and 20th Century Fox’s Around the World in Eighty Days in 1956,” mused Morakul to a passing producer. “However, it’s only been over the last few years that our Film Office [Thailand’s film commission under the Department of Tourism, Ministry of Tourism and Sports, which celebrates its seventh anniversary in July 2011] has become competitive enough raising the profile of our production service industry to match those of more developed locales.”

While Morakul admits that it is a constant chore to maintain competitiveness and to convince the Thai government to allocate an adequate budget to carry forth training programs for the Thai private sector, skills-training courses for neighboring Asian film commissions and programs that help them compete in the global market, she is proud of the industry’s consistent growth.

Over the first quarter of 2011, the number of foreign productions has risen 20% over the same period last year. According to the Department of Tourism, Thailand earned Bt1.87 billion (US$60 million) in 2010, double the more than Bt900 million ($30 million) earned in 2009. This revenue came from 578 foreign productions shot in the country last year. More than 190 productions were shot in Thailand during the first three months of 2011.

Traditionally, Japan and India have filmed the greatest number of productions each year in Thailand. However, for the first three months of 2011, Europe has taken over the number-one position, with Japan following behind (despite the devastating earthquake that hit the Japanese islands on March 11) and India falling to third place.

The bump in European productions may be from renewed European interest in filming in Thailand after the $28.2 million French production Largo Wince II (The Burma Conspiracy) was filmed and produced largely in Thailand.

Why now? What’s changed?

It has taken six or more years for the Thailand Film Office to get the word out to the international community about the country’s exotic locations and multicultural/lingual film crews. And there were years of battling non-interested (Thai) governments that did not recognize the economic viability of promoting access to Thailand's natural and cultural wonders.

Coming off the 2010 fourth quarter hosting two major Hollywood films (Warner’s The Hangover Part II and Universal’s Scorpion King 3) and one film produced by Frenchman Luc Besson, Into the Light, the Thailand Film Office is increasingly seeing applications for filming from new territories such as Eastern European countries and Russia.
But as Thailand swings into a new political election cycle, pundits are wondering if pro-industry film growth will retain support of the government.

Progress in Indonesia?
After one of the Thai Film Office’s meetings with one of the MPAA studios, the chief counsel of the studio (who asked not to be identified) talked a bit about a visit he had received from the U.S. ambassador to Indonesia a few days before.

You will recall reading in this column two months back about possible action MPAA studios would take against the Indonesian government for enactment of a distribution tax on Hollywood movies. Well, very quietly, the studios have held up or slowed down distribution of their films. The Indonesian ambassador visited all the MPAA studios in Hollywood to try to get the pipeline of films flowing again. According to FJI’s studio source, the ambassador was not making much progress in getting movies on Indonesian screens again, as he could not promise swift action on repeal of the distribution tax. But the source said each studio is negotiating its own terms with the Indonesian government, so a breakthrough may happen shortly.

Major Cineplex Teams with Golden Duck
Meanwhile, back in Bangkok came news that Thailand's number-one circuit, Major Cineplex, had turned over operation of its projection booths to Golden Duck. This is the first time in Asia that a circuit is outsourcing its projection operations.

Taken somewhat by surprise that word of the transfer of operations had leaked out, Yupayong Liewluck, managing director for Golden Duck, explained to FJI that Visha Poolveraluck, president of the Major Group, wanted to upgrade and improve the overall quality of movie presentations, and what better way to do that then turning operations over to specialists like Golden Duck? Part of the agreement will be the purchase of an additional 60 digital units to grow their present 30 units.

"Our job will not only be to service and maintain equipment in Major theatres, but to train and increase skills of the projectionists," said Liewluck.

At the same time the new venture was forming at Major, the SF Group, Thailand’s number-two circuit, announced purchase of 10 Technicolor 3D lenses to be installed at SF theaters in Bangkok's suburbs.

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