Thursday, February 28, 2008

Thai film industry wants to be like South Korea's

Whenever executives from the big Thai movie studios talk to the government, they usually talk about how they want to model the Thai film industry on South Korea's, which they view as a huge commercial success.

In principle, I agree with many of the concepts, which call for government support, rather than government control.

A Bangkok Post story today (cache) outlined the Thai film industry's wish list, as stated to Commerce Minister Mingkwan Sangsuwan by Visute Poolvoralaks, chief executive of Grammy Thai Hub:

  • Deregulation -- Switch from the strict censorship regime to a more audience- and filmmaker-friendly ratings system.
  • Cut import taxes -- Film stock, cameras and other equipment must be imported, and the duties are high, increasing costs for the filmmakers.
  • Suppress counterfeiting -- Piracy eats into the bottom line (never mind that buying and selling dodgy DVDs on the street is viewed as a Thai birthright).

Jina Osothsilp, managing director of GTH, is quoted by the Post, saying a roll of film costs just under US$100 in the US (or 3,000 baht), but by the time it is imported into Thailand, that roll of film more than doubles in price to 8,000 baht. She says:

You can imagine how the import duty is a burden."

Visute and Jina chalk up South Korea's success on the world cinema scene to a combination of marketing and government support. Visute says:

I would say that more than 50 percent of Korean movies are good, while quality Thai movies are so few."

One thing the story does not mention is the quota system that Korea had, which required cinemas to screen Korean films for a higher percentage of days than foreign imports. In theory, the system was designed to improve the commercial quality of Korean films, to make them competitive with Hollywood's product - to make Korean films something that would attract people to the cinemas. The quotas were largely scrapped in recent years, causing some upheaval among Korean filmmakers, who lament they are overshadowed by Hollywood.

The idea of quotas comes up in Thai industry talks from time to time, but I'm not convinced it would be practical, or even necessary. Thai cinemagoers have been on a steady diet of Hollywood films for many decades now. Nonetheless, Thai films are growing increasingly popular, and often top the local box office over Hollywood releases, especially Thai slapstick comedies, ghost stories and weepy romances. Visute says his company, GTH, producer of such films as the original Shutter, Dorm, The Bedside Detective and Handle Me With Care, has just about perfected its formula:

Now we know what the right things are for us after three years of experimenting."

The new film law, passed late last year in the willy-nilly lawmaking by the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly is addressed in the story. Here is what it says:

Visute said the new Film Act approved by the previous government to replace the 1973[?] Film Act might introduce impractical regulations like a censorship board.

"The new law could change the landscape of the Thai film industry in a better way or the other way around. If the organic laws set impractical regulations, that would severely hurt the industry," he said.

Under existing legislation, Thai and foreign films would be screened by a strict censorship board dominated by senior police officers who have a reputation for cutting out all explicit sex scenes and anything deemed to be offensive to Buddhism or be politically sensitive.

The industry has lobbied for the current censorship system to be replaced by film ratings, such as 'R' for films restricted to adults. But some are already worried that the amended law may worsen the environment for artistic freedom rather than improve it.

Indeed, the film law, as passed by the junta's rubber-stamp legislature, is very restrictive, with provisions that still include censorship and banning as part of the formula. Films could be censored or banned if they are determined to be a threat to national security -- whatever that means. There is a proposed ratings system, which has a closely tiered grouping of age restrictions, with Under 20 being the highest.

As passed, the new film act still needs another law or ministerial regulation that details the mechanisms of the ratings system and how it would be administered. But so far, I've heard nothing about that. Except they are still censoring films.

Meanwhile, several of the laws passed by the National Legislative Assembly are being called into question, since they were often passed without a quorum, or were counter to the Constitution. The Film Law hasn't been mentioned yet as being among those. Bangkok Pundit has more on the "law factory".

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