Three independent film distributors set out to bring greater viewing choices to Thai cinemas
With profits always on the bottom line, it’s not hard to understand why film distributors have little trouble selling blockbusters like “Fast and Furious 7” or “Avengers: Age of Ultron” to Thailand’s multiplex theatres while the smaller independent films rarely get a look in.
Fortunately though, there are some theatres that have accepted the pitches made by independent distributors, and have given space to such small gems as Japan’s “Little Forest”, the Brazilian gay teenage romance “The Way He Looks” and even the Oscar winning documentary “Citizenfour”.
For these independent distributors, selling the films they believe in is usually a long and tiring battle. It starts with an approach to the film agents to deal with the screening rights, follows with the signing of a contract in alien English legal terms, then goes to negotiating with cinema owners to give them a few showtimes. And that’s before they even launch a marketing strategy to draw the audience in.
“I did it all without knowledge of the process and that made it all the more slower and far more exhausting,” says Thapanan “Ken” Wichitratthakarn, an editor at Ogilvy Public Relations.
Thapanan was drawn into the distribution business after falling in love with “The Way He Looks” at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in Hong Kong last year. He decided Thai audiences deserved to see it too, and set about searching for the contract address of the film’s agent. While he received a quick reply to his e-mail, it took a whole month to come up with an agreement that covered price and profit sharing.
The distribution process, Ken adds, is a burden for any individual to handle alone because of the number of steps to follow. They include the drawing up of a contract with the film agent, translating subtitles, transporting the movie material, negotiating with the cinemas and the marketing to the target audiences. Film companies have staff to deal with all this. The independent distributor is lucky if he can convince a few friends to help.
Eventually, the hard work paid off for Ken, and “The Way He Looks” opened in March at the Lido in Siam Square, House on RCA and SF World Cinema at CentralWorld.
Worawisuth Chalacheebh, 20, went to the Busan International Film Festival last year to scout for movies to distribute in Thailand. He was able to negotiate for the two-part Japanese film “Little Forest”, the first part of which “Summer and Autumn”, has been screening at Lido and House. The drama is about a young woman who moves from the big city back to her small hometown in the mountains. There, she gains new energy from a healthful, self-sufficient lifestyle, which includes growing her own food and cooking her own meals. The sequel, “Winter and Spring”, is due out soon.
A freshman in Wildlife and Media at the University of Cumbria in England, Worawisuth returned home last year to produce the romantic drama “1448 Rak Rao Khong Krai” with a bunch of friends. Even though the indie Thai film flopped, he decided not to go back to the UK and started over at Ramkhamhang University while making his debut in movie distribution.
“My family disagrees with what I am doing. They want me to concentrate on my studies,” he admits sheepishly. “But I enjoy working and will continue for as long as I can make a profit or at break even.”
He laughs as he recalls the Japanese film agent’s surprise both at his youth and inexperience but the two eventually brokered a deal. “I saw the potential to promote it immediately,” he says of the film. “I arranged a workshop where we made the same dishes as in the film and printed a lovely postcard illustrating the recipes for audience.
“I firmly believe that independent distributors like us can serve the increasing demand from film fans to see a greater variety of movies,” says Worawisuth.
A film critic and Bioscope movie magazine’s editor, Thida Plitpholkarnpim has the most experience in film distribution of the three, and was involved in the distribution of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Palme d’Or winner, “Lung Boonme Raluek Chat” (“Uncle Boonme Who Can Recall His Past Lives”).
After working with the government sector in screening documentaries for various campaigns, she now finds documentaries more entertaining than fiction. She set up the Documentary Club to show films at weekends with an option to expand to more showtimes for popular titles. Thida runs this side business on her own and says it is not related to her work at Bioscope.
While documentaries traditionally have a more limited audience than indie films, her careful selections have led to the Documentary Club programme becoming a success at SF cinemas.
“Documentaries are no longer boring as the filmmaker embraces feature film techniques particularly in editing, narrative style and sound to attract audience,” Thida says. “I’ve learned that documentary audiences are often not regular moviegoers or fans of indie films either. They pay for tickets because they are interested in the subjects,” she adds.
Thida enjoyed success late last year with “Finding Vivien Maier”, the story of a mysterious nanny, who secretly took more than 100,000 photographs that were hidden in storage until after her death. Her club earned more fame – and even some money – when she brought to Thailand the Oscar-winning public-surveillance exposé “Citizenfour”, which earned Bt1.6 million at the box office, mostly through promotional efforts on the Documentary Club’s Facebook page.
Other Documentary Club entries have included “Life Itself”, about Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert, and the most recent offering “1971”, which covers the burglary of an FBI office by ordinary citizens that led to the exposure of a secret surveillance programme that targeted leftist activists, politicians and entertainment figures whom FBI director J Edgar Hoover deemed enemies of the state.
“It’s all to do with the subject,” Thida says.
All three distributors use the social networks to connect with their targets as well as spread news about their films.
“You can’t just write anything to promote your film. You have to think carefully and really deliver your message to the audience,” says Thapanan.
While all three are doing well in terms of reputation, they admit the money is not pouring in, with the “The Way He Looks” and “Little Summer” only just achieving break-even point.
The screening fee for distributing an independent film ranges from Bt100,000 to B1 million and both Thapanan and Worawisuth are digging into their own pockets. Thida recently opted to raise funds through Taejai.com and has so far raised Bt400,000 to buy distribution rights
The warm welcome their films have received from cinemaphiles is inspiring others to follow in their footsteps and the ultimate benefactors will be members of the film-going public
“It would be great to have more independent distributors but just learning more about the process before starting will help the working process runs smoother and easier,” says Thapanan.