Thailand Film Industry Soldiers on Amid Political Turmoil
Insiders say the mass street protests in Bangkok have had a limited impact on movie projects, but they worry prolonged conflict or an outbreak of violence could threaten the country's reputation as the go-to shooting destination in Southeast Asia.
Just as mass political protests began to escalate on the streets of Bangkok last December, the latest high-profile Hollywood film to shoot in Thailand, The Coup, was wrapping production in the country's far north.
"There is some irony there," says Chris Lowenstein, founder of Living Films, the Thailand-based production services company that co-produced the movie for Bold Films.
Directed by John Erick Dowdle and starring Owen Wilson, Pierce Brosnan and Lake Bell, The Coup tells the story of an American family trying to escape a Southeast Asian country during a violent military takeover.
Lowenstein says any similarities between the film and Thailand's current political crisis are surface-level at best, but he and other business leaders in the country's burgeoning production services industry are indeed concerned about the impact the turmoil could have on the film sector if a resolution isn’t reached soon.
"There has naturally been some apprehension regarding Thailand as a production destination," said Lowenstein, whose firm also facilitated The Hangover II shoot in Thailand for Warner Bros. in 2011. "But that hasn't stopped producers from greenlighting projects here or from committing resources to budgeting, scouting and the like."
"If the protests are prolonged, however, we could see that change," he added.
In recent years, Thailand has solidified a position as the preferred shooting location in Southeast Asia, regularly attracting high-visibility Hollywood projects -- The Railway Man, starring Colin Firth and Nicole Kidman also shot there last year -- and a steady flow of lucrative advertising and TV shoots. According to the Thailand Film Office, 717 international productions -- including commercials, music videos, TV programs and feature films -- shot in Thailand in 2013, up from 636 in 2012, and as few as 492 back in 2005.
Protestors in Bangkok have been rallying for the ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra and her ruling Pheu Thai Party since November, alleging that the government remains under the influence of the PM's billionaire brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, a divisive figure who was prime minister from 2001 to 2006 before being removed from power in a military coup and taking residence in Dubai. Prime Minister Yingluck has so far refused to relinquish control to the opposition, saying that doing so would undermine Thailand's democracy and be unfair to the voters who legally elected her to power. The protestors have escalated by blocking major streets and marching on government offices in an attempt to shut down the capital. In recent days, violence has crept into the previously peaceful gatherings, as bombs and sniper shots have hit parties aligned with each side. So far, at least nine have died and an estimated 550 have been hurt. On Jan. 21, Yingluck declared a state of emergency in Bangkok and its surrounding districts. The military hasn't ruled out taking over.
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On Dec. 26, Thailand's Ministry of Finance cut the country's projected growth rate for 2014 from 5.1 percent to 4 percent. The ministry again revised its forecast on Jan. 16, cutting projected growth to 3.1 percent. Goldman Sachs also lowered its forecast for Thai GDP growth this year to 3.6 percent from 4.2 percent, citing the political unrest.
Nicolas Simon, co-founder of Southeast Aisan production services firm Indochina Productions, which has worked on projects including Transformers 3 and Rambo IV, says his company has had some international TV commercial shoots canceled or moved to other Southeast Asian countries in which his business operates. Nevertheless, Simon says he's optimistic about the Thai industry's ability to cope with uncertainty.
"It certainly does not help immediately, but Thailand has had similar issues recently and bounced back within weeks of the situations ending," he said.
Top Thai studio and postproduction company Kantana, which has handled post for projects such as Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmaster, told The Hollywood Reporter the protests have had a limited impact on business so far, since they have been focused around government buildings and easy-to-avoid commercial centers.
"There is an understandable level of concern from international clients regarding the situation, based on the scenes they see on the news," Piyarat Kaljareuk, the studio's director of development, told THR. "However, our facilities remain open, and have not experienced any down time."
Simon also noted a potential silver lining for especially savvy and intrepid international producers. Thailand's currency, the baht, has fallen 5.6 percent since the protests began at the start of November, Bloomberg reported Thursday. And producers with the resources can often lock in their exchange rate by pre-purchasing their budget's baht prior to production.
"For producers paying in U.S. dollars, Euros or British pounds, that amounts to [the equivalent of] an immediate rebate," Simon said.
But what Simon and sources across the industry all say they are wishing for most -- and worrying may be elusive -- is a speedy and peaceful resolution to the political gridlock.
"If violence breaks out, and safety becomes an issue, stars will not come here, insurance companies will refuse cover, and everything will stop," said Paul Spurrier, editor of Film in Thailand, the Thailand Film Office's monthly industry bulletin.
"That would be a disaster at a time when the production services industry in Thailand is keen to maintain its dominant position in the face of competition from other countries," he said.