Each year, Thailand welcomes hundreds of foreign film productions, including movies, documentaries, TV programmes, music videos and commercials.
According to the tourism department’s director-general, Anant Wongbenjarat, in 2019, 740 international film crews generated almost 5 billion baht for the local economy. After the pandemic struck, however, those figures dropped dramatically. Last year just 176 foreign film productions came to Thailand, bringing in 1.73 billion baht.
Despite the problems posed by the coronavirus, and the increase in competition from neighbouring countries, Thailand is still a top destination, in Southeast Asia, for international film productions. Thai PBS World spoke with an Australian commercial director and executive producer, to discover insider experiences and the pros and cons of shooting in Thailand.
Up to the end of the 1990s, most international film crews headed to Singapore, as it was then the regional film production hub. Then freelance commercial director, Adrian Van de Velde, travelled back and forth between Singapore and his hometown of Sydney, Australia. He recalled that, a short while later, the amount of work in Thailand started to increase, as the production centre shifted here from Singapore. Adrian found himself fully occupied, shooting commercials here. Eventually, he decided to take advantage of the high production values Thailand had to offer and set up his own production company.
Highly skilled crews + Low production costs
When asked what the benefits are of working with Thai crews, he replied “From an industry point of view, Thais are noted for their art, their culture and attention to detail. So, our art directors are extraordinarily talented. The cinematographers are considered to be among the best in the world. From a gear point of view, the quality of the equipment to which we have access is state of the art. Basically, we have the latest equipment with the best studios and everyone knows that. I mean, that’s why you come to Thailand to film, because you’ve got really fast crews that are very efficient and really well trained…and they speak English.”
One more crucial factor, which makes Thailand so competitive, is its cost effectiveness. “In the instance that we get a European or an American client, they come here because it is winter in their countries, there are some unique locations and you can film outdoors here, and they can’t in Europe during winter. Additionally, what they discovered is that, even if you’re shooting in a studio, the production quality is incredibly spotless. The crews are really fast and efficient, and the cost is lower than shooting in the West. So, if you wanted to hire a studio in LA or in London, you would find that the price here is at least a third cheaper, possibly more, so that is the reason why clients do keep coming back to shoot in Bangkok”, Adrian added.
Interestingly, what is considered to be Thailand’s strongest point, could also be its drawback. Since the cost of living has gone up over time, crew costs have increased. “They have gone up considerably since we first got here”, Adrian said.
Nevertheless, he pointed out that living expenses have surged in other countries too, but the trick is to try and balance what is an emerging middle class here with demands for higher salaries. Thailand needs to temper that with what’s going on in the rest of the world, and he suggested retaining competitive advantage over the countries, against which Thailand is competing for international film work.
In the past few years, the Thai government has been proactive in its strategy to lure foreign film productions here. It offered a cash rebate of 15-20%, for co-productions with Thais, which spend over 50 million baht. Malaysia, which aims to become a major hub for foreign film production, gives a 30% rebate for all qualifying Malaysian production expenditure. The government in Kuala Lumpur created the Iskandar Special Economic Zone, purposely to support its film production industry. It also helped fund giant studio productions, with a budget of US$150 million, known as Iskandar Malaysia Studios.
For small-scale productions, however, Vietnam has done a good job. It could soon turn out to be Thailand’s arch competitor.
The way Adrian sees it, Vietnam has a rapidly growing economy. It invested heavily in its education system during the 1980s and 1990s. As a result, all those people are now in middle management, and there are many entrepreneurs. For him, Vietnam is a success story of modernization in the region.
“When I first got to Vietnam, there were three or four big production companies with which you could work. This could definitely also be said for Thailand, but the market has become super packed with competitors over there, so there’s plenty of companies offering excellent service and the market is very crowded, and is starting to see the value in international work. So, in terms of competing against them in the film industry, we need to keep an eye on them, because they are rapidly expanding”, Adrian said.
By Jeerapa Suvanvitit