Wednesday, May 4, 2005

Head of the Five Star family

The Bangkok Post business section on Tuesday offered up a story about Aphiradee Iamphungphorn, the 28-year-old head of Five Star Production, the iconic Thai film studio that has been making movies since 1973.

Five Star is behind some of my favorite Thai films -- Monrak Transistor, Last Life in the Universe and Citizen Dog among them. The company also is backing Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's Invisible Waves, and is counting on it to revive the company.

Here's the story:

Aphiradee Iamphungphorn drove six hours from Arizona to Thailand Plaza in Los Angeles to buy a DVD of Mon-Rak Transistor. She didn't particularly want to watch it but was seeking an answer to her friends' questions about the Thai film's cross-border popularity.

Ms Aphiradee, now 28, grew up on Hollywood films. She was sceptical that even award-winning Thai films could be found outside of the country. She was doubly surprised when she found it was produced by Five Star Production Co, founded by her father.

Her father, Kiat Iamphungphorn, died when she was only four years old. At 16, she moved to the United States with her mother and two younger brothers, resulting in a separation from the film production company for 10 years.

But at age 26, she found herself at a crossroads with two options open to her: staying in the US and applying for citizenship or returning to Thailand and trying her luck in the film business.

She chose the latter.

"I become the de facto head of the company since I was the oldest member of the third generation of the family-owned business. At first I thought the business should be run by one of my brothers and not a woman. But it has been no problem having me heading up the company's operations," Ms Aphiradee said.

The business had been in the hands of her father's younger brother, Charoen Iamphungphorn. Today Ms Aphiradee works with her two brothers, Kiatkamon, 26, who is executive director of the company and Kiattikul, 25, who holds the title of junior executive director. Mr Charoen is the company's president and consults with her on key projects.

Her ambitious dream is to revive Five Star to its glory days and develop it into a key player in the international market.

"I began working at Five Star after it had lost its top position in the market. It has been a real challenge for me. If I didn't take charge of the company, who would?" she asked.

Five Star was established in 1973. It has produced 232 films in total with its latest release being Citizen Dog in 2004.

In its peak years of 1978, 1980, 1982 and 1989, the company released 12 films annually. But, over the years, Five Star has faced the ups and downs for which the Thai film industry is known, along with the economic crisis and the lack of a strong leader to help drive growth.

The company has made inroads since 2000, gaining more recognition both locally and abroad, with the release of award-winning films. Last Life in the Universe, released in 2003, won the the best leading actor award at the Venice Film Festival, and Mon-Rak Transistor has been shown in more than 20 countries.

Also, the rights for the thriller 6ixtynin9, directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang and starring Lalita "Mew" Punyopas, which flopped at the box office in Thailand, were sold abroad and it [is being remade] in Hollywood for $20 million.

However, along the way the company has hit some bumps. Last year it released only four films [including Citizen Dog] before it lost 50 million baht.

Ms Aphiradee said Thai movies still had a lot of potential both at home and abroad, but a movie as a product must be attractive, interesting, and high quality.

Ms Aphiradee, who holds a degree in international business from Arizona State University, has worked to make the company more professional, hiring more skilled staff as well as market researchers to determine consumer demand.

Each project is considered carefully in terms of potential before going into production in order to reduce business risk.

"Investing money in the stock market or keeping money in the bank is less risky than producing a film," she said.

Currently, Five Star is looking for joint production partners from Thailand and abroad, not only to reduce financial risks, but to gain experience from foreign crews.

Its latest thriller, Invisible Waves, is a joint production involving companies from five nations: Hong Kong, the Netherlands, South Korea, Italy and Thailand.

The film is being directed by Mr Pen-ek and will premiere by the end of this year. It is being pre-sold in 15 nations while in Thailand Five Star holds exclusive distribution rights.

Also, under the wing of Five Star are [the remake-sequel of the 1970s smash hit] Wai Un Lawon, to be released on July 28, and Sakod Roi Choo, set to premiere in the first quarter of next year.

Ms Aphiradee said the company ultimately aimed to become an integrated entertainment business.

She cited the establishment of a subsidiary, Star Dio Co, which makes movie posters to promote Five Star films as well as those of other companies.

{Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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