An indie production made by an Isaan director for an Isaan audience finds its way to Bangkok
A low-budget independent film that’s taken Thailand’s Northeast by storm finally arrives in Bangkok this week after weeks of negotiations and rejections that left its director Uten Sririvi with a sour taste in his mouth.
By the end of last week “Phoobao Thai Baan Isaan” had earned Bt10 million at the box office despite only being screened at 28 upcountry cinemas.
“I came to Bangkok three times to try and get a showtime and each time the cinema groups told me no. Now that it’s been a hit in the Northeast, they called me back and we struck a deal,” Uten explains.
He understands the reasoning behind the rejection. Several non-studio movies released over the last year bombed so badly that they were withdrawn from screens within days of opening. “Muay Jin Din Kong Loke” is a prime example, stealing the new record for the least grossing film of all time with Bt29,000 and drawing just 162 viewers during its short run, most of them disgusted at having coughed up Bt180 for a ticket.
Despite his rejection by Bangkok, Uten did manage to strike a deal in the Northeast and was delighted, not to mention vindicated, by the response. Lured by his indie marketing strategy, audiences stormed into the cinema and the movie took Bt890,000 on the first day, a phenomenal sum in an area where tickets sell for Bt80 to Bt120. Theatre owners reacted positively too, quickly adding more showtimes.
“I didn’t expect that my film would gross that much. It’s not a fluke either. The success comes from our hard work before the movie was released,” says the director.
“PBTB” tells the story of Thongkam (Tanachat Tunyachat), a young man who dreams of being a filmmaker. He’s also waiting for the woman he loves to come back from overseas but when she does, she isn’t alone but has a farang boyfriend in tow. Martin Wheeler, a Briton who ditched a successful career to settle in Khon Kaen with his wife and three children, plays the boyfriend.
The movie, says Uten, tells a real Isaan story in a language the people understand and depicts a lifestyle to which many aspire.
Citing the exceptions of Bin Bunluerit’s “Panya Raenu” series and Petchtai Wongkamlao’s “Yam Yasothon”, most films portraying Isaan life are simply not realistic, he says.
“Isaan people don’t go to see new movies. What they want are films about their land and their people and these rarely come out of a Bangkok-based film studio. But once offered an Isaan film, they don’t hesitate to pay for it. It’s a niche market but once with a large target group,” he says.
A graduate of Rajamangala University of Technology Thanyaburi, Uten has also studied movie marketing. He thinks that one reason that many independent films are not successful is because the filmmakers are so wrapped up in the movie that they forget the marketing.
“Once they’ve found an investor, they get into the shooting and post-production thinking that’s the end of the process but it isn’t. They tend to ignore marketing and the target group,” he says.
A few directors have already adopted the idea of making films in their native area for a local audience. Examples include the gay teen drama “Pee Chaay” (“My Bromance”), made in Chiang Mai by Chiang Mai-based director Nichphoom Chaianan and starring only local actors. It was released in Chiang Mai and did well enough to earn wider distribution in Bangkok, where it earned Bt4 million.
Mainstream director Chookiat Sakveerakul has also moved back to his native Chiang Mai and his last two movies, “Home Khwam Rak Khwam Sook Khwam Songjam” and “Grean Fictions” have been shot there.
However, Uten, is quick to point out that making a regional movie is no guarantee of success for independent filmmakers. “But it is important to know who the audience is and how the movie can reach them.”
He worked in Bangkok as a freelance cameraman for years before returning home and today still takes photos for weddings and other important events.
The idea for “PBTB” was born a few years ago when he made a short film and uploaded it to YouTube. The feedback was so good that he developed the script, turning it into a three-part story suitable for a full-length feature. Unable to find funding for the project, he opted to use only the first part that tells Thongkam’s story. He pitched the project to film studios and several investors but with no success.
Determined to go ahead, he sold his rice fields and refinanced his car and raised enough to cover just five days a shooting. His friend, a producer, was quick to point out that he couldn’t complete the film on such a paltry sum and suggested he pitch his idea to local businessman Montonshagrid Phusridow.
Disheartened by the number of rejections he had already received, Uten initially refused but his wife, Jinnapat Ladarat, was able to convince him. Montonshagrid agreed to invest in the project and shooting recommenced.
“Even then, I haven’t been able to pay the instalments on my car for four months, so I guess it’s going to be confiscated,” he says.
Shooting with a DLSR Panasonic GH 3 started in earnest last year and Uten was left with just 10 days to complete the post-production process before the film’s June 6 release.
In parallel with filming, he worked on marketing, setting up a movie fan page and taking rough-cuts for test screenings. When he’d finished the edited version, he screened it for all ages, including students and the elderly, making changes based on their feedback.
He also produced T-shirts advertising the movie and sold more than 2,000 online. Some 500 stickers were given to supporters for their cars just before Songkran so they could help spread the word.
And when the time came to sell the film in Bangkok, he chose the theatre locations, settling only for those in areas with a large Isaan population.
Uten knows though that the real test lies in the feedback from the Bangkok screenings.
“The movie is made for the people of Isaan who live far who away from home. People who watched the film in Isaan told me that they hoped those who caught it in Bangkok would come back after seeing the film. For me, that would be the greatest success,” he says.
NO PLACE LIKE HOME
“Phoobao Thai Baan Isaan” opens in Bangkok on Thursday. The soundtrack is in Isaan dialect with Thai subtitles. For more details, see Facebook.com/esanindyfilmstudio.