Thursday, June 17, 2004

Mistrust and the theater merger

The Bangkok Post ran an excellent package of stories the other day, following up on the merger of Thailand's biggest theater chains.

Other than the threat of a monopoly and rising ticket prices, the biggest worry is that Thai films will be left out the of the equation. Kong Rithdee reports:

Thai film producers have long complained that theatre operators tend to favour Hollywood blockbusters and limit the opportunity for local movies to make headway. The term "four days of danger" hovers like a dreaded skull-and-crossbones over Thai film-makers: If a movie doesn't show strong prospects during its first four days of showing (Thursday to Sunday), theatres will bump it to give way to lucrative American imports.

Local producers say they understand the nature of cinema business, but then the situation got complicated when Sahamongkol Film International, a giant producer and film distributor that held the biggest market share last year, announced last week that it would not screen their movies at Major Cineplex theatres, beginning June 24.

"Right now Hollywood movies dominate the theatres. Say, if Spider-Man opens this week, theatres won't show anything else at all," said Somsak Techaratanaprasert, president of SFI and also chairman of the Federation of Thai Film Producers.

"Last week two Thai movies opened [a soft-core romance, The Sin and the romantic comedy Pad Thai]. One of them is not doing well, the other has an okay potential, but there's no guarantee that the theatres will continue to screen either of them regularly with all the Hollywood summer flicks opening.

"I decided to pull out of Major Cineplex not because of any personal resentment, but because I believe that a movie can survive not only because it's shown in a lot of screens, but when it's shown over a long period of time, like it used to be 20 years ago."

One industry insider, however, pointed out that SFI, which also distributes foreign movies in Thailand, gobbled up the majority of screens when it released Lord of the Rings.

"That was the same scenario as when they say other Hollywood flicks shut out Thai films."

Rumour has it that what is deepening -- or actually, causing -- the conflict is the report that Major Cineplex plans to buy rights to screen foreign movies itself, thus heightening the competition among existing film importers/distributors. A widespread concern is that if a theatre chain starts to import its own movies, it's possible that other distributors' movies won't be treated fairly -- having fewer show times each day, for example.

"Moreover, if we have too many importers of foreign movies, it means we have to offer higher prices to the owners of the film rights, since they know there's intense competition here," said an expert who refused to be named.

"But don't rush to judgement, that the merger of Major and EGV is an unpleasant surprise," he continued. "The people still have choices, and it's good that they've become more selective. Theatres won't gain anything if they try to abuse their power."

To some people in the artistic side of the industry, the recent merger has not only business implications but cultural ones as well: When a theatre chain grows so largely dominant, it's possible that it will become an entity that makes decisions as to what audiences will see -- a monopoly of taste. So far Major has made no comment on whether its expansion of screens will translate into a variety in film titles. If not, the Thai film industry, standing on its shaky legs, will suffer a great blow.

Given the uncertainty, film-maker Pimpaka Towira (One Night Husband)believes it's time for a powerful third party to intervene: the government.

"I see nothing wrong with the merger, and I see nothing wrong if a theatre shows Harry Potter 100 times a day, because that's what they do to make money," Pimpaka said.

"But what's wrong is the lack of attention from the government to take movies seriously as culture. They cannot leave the business sector to shape the face of culture alone, which is what's happening now.

"For instance, in Korea, it's obligatory for theatres to show at least 30 percent local movies per year. China has more or less the same rule. I'm not suggesting we should copy their models, but it's obvious that we can do something about it.

"Movies are commerce, yes, but it's a cultural commerce that should not fall under the universal rule of free trade," Pimpaka said. "Sometimes culture should be planned, moulded and revised. And no, culture is not just about traditional Thai dancing. It should be the job of the government to start thinking hard about it."

A sidebar article voiced anger, fear and frustration over rising prices and limited showtimes for smaller films.

"Now that the duo has become the biggest in the film industry here, they can set prices and movie choices that promise to generate the most money. Movie-goers have already lost and the game hasn't even started," said Mana Sookananchai, an avid movie fan.

He cited the example of The Lord of the Rings: Ticket prices at both theatre chains soared from 120 to 140 baht, and have not gone down. Without legal protection, pricing is set by movie operators themselves.

Mana said it was a painful cycle: making a trip to a movie theatre just to wind up having to watch a Hollywood movie like Harry Potter that dominates most of the screens, leaving little space for other movies.

Showtimes were also unfairly arranged, he said: Most box-office movies get priority times, such as after-work hours and weekend time slots. Daytime and late night shows are usually set aside for non-box office films, or those on short runs, some for only a week.

"It's not fair. How many times do they expect us to watch box office films? There are other movies that I want to see, too," Mana said, adding that he's afraid the merger will exacerbate the scene, making it more difficult for film lovers.

"Don't expect me to stick with brand loyalty, not if prices continue to soar. I'll just buy quality pirated VCDs and DVDs instead _ the same price as a movie ticket, and I can watch them over and over with friends, conveniently at home," Mana said.
He hopes that competition will stimulate rivalry in the business, that other chains like SFX Cinema and Apex will improve their services and compete with the new merger with lower ticket prices and a great selection of movies to watch.

"I might like watching movies, but that doesn't mean I'm blind, that I will go for expensive entertainment unless it's worth it," he said.

The article also highlighted an annoying aspect -- the promotion schemes. Folks are nuts for membership cards and free promotions. At stores, it is difficult to get in and out of the door because the entryways are clogged up with people waiting in line to redeem their receipts for some free junk, or queuing to sign up for some sweepstakes prize. Restaurants all have coupon booklets that get a stamp with each visit, redeemable for the least desireable item on the menu.

The theatres were all trying to get people to buy a membership card that entitled the bearer to 20 baht (about 50 cents) off the regular admission price. The catch was that the discount card couldn't be used on new releases and certain big-name films like Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. It's a swindle. The theater took 120 baht (about $3.50) for the membership card, promising a savings value many times more than that, but the card could hardly be used because of all the restrictions.

I have a solution for the schemes -- I ignore them. I hate all that junk clogging up my wallet anyway.

I choose restaurants and stores that serve what I want to eat and what I need, balanced with convenience of opening hours and locations. Discount schemes don't come into the equation.

Movie theaters I choose for what movie is playing. If they have what I want to see, they get my business. My next consideration is convenience of showtime and location. Price is a consideration as well. Rather than running out on a Friday night to catch a new Hollywood release at the nearby mall multiplex that charges 120 or 140 baht, I might wait until the middle of the week when I have more time to see the film at an independent theater for 100 baht.

Here's more from the article:

"Promotion schemes would become more tricky," said Thiti Ongsathirakul, who joined the recent, controversial contest sponsored by EGV. He watched 100 movies at all 100 EGV theatres in the hope of winning the one million baht prize earlier this year. There were about 120 qualified winners, though, each of whom paid about 16,000 baht just to split the prize among themselves, winding up with about 8,000 baht each. Meanwhile, EGV earned about two million baht from all the contestants.

"The promotional campaigns, such as discount cards and collecting points, already benefit theatre operators who set the rules and run the show. Thousands join the games, but only a few can win. So who makes the most money out of it?" Thiti asked.

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