Friday, June 25, 2004

Marketing Thai films overseas

Another excellent article in the Bangkok Post today by Kong Rithdee. He talked to Wouter Barendrecht of Fortissimo Films and Carrie Wong of Golden Network Asia about marketing Thai films overseas.

Since the early 1990s, the name Wouter Barendrecht has become synonymous with the rise of Asian arthouse flicks. The high-flying Dutchman and his Hong Kong-based company, Fortissimo Film Sales, are internationally recognised as experts in driving small Oriental films onto the global stage. Reportedly fierce at the negotiating table, Fortissimo pursues its business agenda while playing a big part in facilitating the cultural export that Thai films only dreamt about barely a decade ago.

"For one thing, the trend of globalisation means Thailand is not so far away as it used to be," says Wouter. "But more importantly, the new generation of Thai filmmakers -- after the era of Cherd Songsri and M.C. Chatrichalerm Yukol -- are much more international in their outlook. Without sacrificing the Thainess, these filmmakers have developed a film language that people outside Thailand can relate to."

In 1990 Wouter was programming the Berlin and Rotterdam Film Festivals when the sudden outbreak of Asian sensations took place. Filmmakers like Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-wai, and Tsai Ming-liang churned out some of the world's most exciting cinema; the Far East had boiled up a typhoon of New Wave moviemaking, and Wouter's newly-founded Fortissimo rightly gauged the weather when they started handling the world sales of Asian arthouse movies.

The typhoon swept through Thailand in 1997 when young Thai directors began making eye-catching flicks that grabbed attention beyond their homeland. In 1999 Fortissimo was entrusted by a Thai studio to manage the international sales of Nang Nak. Subsequent deals followed, and currently the agent is handling about 15 Thai titles in its catalogue, including the gay comedy Satree Lex (Iron Ladies), neo-noir 6ixtynin9, weird Thai-Western Fah Talai Jone (Tears of the Black Tiger), erotic drama Jan Dara, bittersweet Monrak Transistor and minimalist love ode Last Life in the Universe. And the latest two additions in Fortissimo's repertoire are Thailand's two top hits of the past 12 months, Fan Chan (My Girl) and Home Rong (The Overture).

With such diverse stock, Fortissimo, unknowingly perhaps, could shape the perception of foreign audiences about Thai cinema -- or, even more significantly, about Thailand as a nation.

"There's a thin line between what's 'very Thai' and what's 'universal'," says Wouter. "Something that's very culturally specific can be very universal too. As it happens, the best international filmmakers are those who're extremely specific in their own culture _ like Ozu [master Japanese director] or Zhang Yimou [Chinese] or Pedro Almodovar [Spanish]. Some Thai directors like Pen-ek Ratanaruang, who did Monrak Transistor and Last Life in the Universe, or Nonzee Nimibutr of Nang Nak and OK Baytong seem to have that quality.

"We pick films to represent not because of their nationalities -- not because they're Thai -- but because of their quality. Say, if I'm selling Zhang Yimou, I'm not selling China, but I'm selling the director. But the contradiction is that Zhang Yimou is so good because his movies are so Chinese. The same goes for Thai directors who're doing good stuff without leaving the Thai roots."

For example, look at the kid flick Fan Chan. Wouter believes that the film -- a nostalgic childhood flashback which became the country's top-grossing pic last year _ relies heavily on the audience's complicity in terms of cultural understanding. But at the same time the film projects certain sensibilities that everybody can share. Fortissimo recently sold the film for theatrical release in Mexico, where the buyer expressed rapt appreciation about how the story relates his own country.

"When you Thais see Fan Chan, you know all those old songs, you know the games the characters play, so you easily feel the sweep of nostalgia," Wouter says. "But the movie's theme of transition, of a society going through modernisation -- that's universal. The little details, like when a mom-and-pop grocery is replaced by a 7-Eleven, is something everybody understands, certainly the people in Mexico."

How to get a Mexican distributor to see a little movie made at the other longitude of the equator is exactly the job of sales agents. In that process, the usual meeting points are international film fests where agents, producers, and buyers from all over congregate to look at new stuff and probably strike new deals. The significance when a Thai film is invited to screen at foreign cinefests -- especially the major ones at Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Toronto -- is both in terms of artistic showcase and business opportunities.

And since different film festivals attract different industry crowds, a shrewd sales agent needs to be prescient in choosing which title to push at which festival. "I believe that each film has its own natural festival," says Wouter. "For example, a Chinese film we handle called Shower, was invited to the Venice festival a few years back. Now, Venice is a prestigious event, but I convinced the director not to send his film to that festival, since Venice is only frequented by critics, and Shower is a feel-good film with a commercial front that wouldn't score an impression with serious critics.

"I saved the film and launched it a few months later at the Toronto festival, where both critics and general audience had to watch movies in the same theatre. And when the public liked it -- because it's a feel-good film -- the critics found it impossible to be harsh about it, and the overall reaction was good. If Shower had been in Venice, I think we wouldn't have made the sale."

Such strategy, Wouter added, is what he plans for Home Rong. "It's a beautiful film that will impress the viewers," he says. "Everybody usually thinks about Cannes, but one setback about Cannes is that there are way too many movies competing for the attention of buyers to the point they feel overloaded. Perhaps for Home Rong, it's better to use Cannes as a place to make people slowly aware of the film, to build up the curiosity."

In all it boils down, Wouter explains, to the directors' reputation and the films' quality itself. "Though the industry here is small, it's quite rich in variety," he says. "You might say that most Thai movies are not of recommendable quality, but what's important is to have the actual production going on all the time and to have enough volume. That's the basis of future development."

While popular Thai films have yet to attain the universal stamp of approval from foreign audiences, a crossover has proven possible -- and lucrative. With selling points more glaring than those of obscure cultural arthouse flicks, an agent pushing commercial Siamese movies believes in the irresistible pull of bloody actioners and scare-high horrors. It needn't be a masterpiece, for this agent knows the golden rule of marketing: no need to give the viewers the best, just give them what they want.

"I was introduced to Thai film in 2001 with Bang Rajan," says Carrie Wong, general manager of Hong Kong-based Golden Network Asia. "That historical action movie was very exciting, very formulaic, and very Hollywood, which meant it had a brilliant opportunity abroad, and it actually did."

Carrie started Golden Network 10 years ago as a sales consultancy firm for Hong Kong's giant producers Golden Harvest, and later for Shaw Brothers. When Hong Kong cinema slipped into the doldrums in the '90s, she began looking for fresh inspiration in other Asian offerings. Her first foray in selling Bang Rajan led to her carving out a speciality in mass-market Thai flicks unrepresented by other sales agents. Currently Carrie handles the foreign sales of roughly a dozen Thai pictures, from the gaudy comedy-action Jed Prachanbarn [also titled variously as Seven Heaven or Seven Streetfighters], triptych ghost stories Pee Sam Baht (Bangkok Haunted), monster saga Garuda, to the crummy folklore Khun Pan.

"I see that Thailand has recently produced many new directors who make movies with ideas and energy, which is what happened in Hong Kong 10 or 20 years ago," Carrie says.

The biggest fish Golden Network has caught is the exuberant Muay-Thai martial arts film Ong-Bak. Carrie has sold theatrical rights of the sensational kick-ass actioner to a dozen countries, from Japan to France to the US, and as the word spread out how fun the flick is, the momentum has kept rolling. In May Ong-Bak opened in Paris with a huge marketing blitz and went on to collect some seven million euros in ticket sales, a whopping number considering that it's a small movie from Asia.

Even though out-and-out commercial movies rarely need critics' approval, Carrie insists on the importance of film festivals as springboards to promote Thai movies. At last year's Toronto Film Festival, a key event in North American territories, Ong-Bak whipped up a buzz when it received a standing ovation, which gave the agent a level of confidence to push its campaign ahead.

Last month at the Cannes Film Festival, the company put up giant billboards announcing the pre-production of Ong-Bak's sequel (rather unimaginatively called Tom Yam Kung). "Many Thai films have a kind of ready-made appeal that foreign audiences can appreciate, especially the action movies," Carrie says. "Even ones that weren't really a big hit in Thailand, like the recent 102 Pid Krungthep Plon [Bangkok Robbery], attract interest from buyers from many countries.

"You may think that Korean movies are doing well on the global stage, but my feeling is that sometimes their stories are so specific that it's difficult to sell theatrical rights, and it seems to be easier to sell a remake right for them.

"The success of Ong-Bak may be exceptional, but it shows that with the right timing and ingredients it is possible."

In the meantime Carrie thinks new action panache Kerd Ma Lui, or Born to Fight, boasts a similarly successful formula. Now in production, the film has generated plenty of interest and pre-sale contracts since the company showed 15-minutes of footage at Cannes. The film, directed by Panna Rittikrai, former B-pic maestro and stunt choreographer of Ong-Bak, sets out to be a showcase of athletic, awe-inspiring fight sequences performed by many real-life athletes. As the movie nears its finish date, and even though it has no fixed date for local release, the agent has already drawn up a marketing blitz for its international sale.

"First of all we can tie in the success of Ong-Bak with Born to Fight," says Carrie. "But our bigger plan is to hype up the movie with the upcoming Olympic Games, because it's a movie that shows wonderful athletic tricks. This strategy worked when Shaolin Soccer was tied in to the World Cup and it became a big hit. Then later in September we'll try to get the film into the Venice Film Festival, in the 'Midnight Madness' programme, which will be sure to give it the exposure it deserves.

"Each film needs a different treatment," Carrie says, confirming the motto of all sales agents. "So each time we handle a new title, we have the job of coming up with a fresh new idea."

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