Thai cinema’s golden year: Record-breaking box office and diverse storytelling

Thai films typically generate only around 30 per cent of the revenue of Hollywood movies. But since the beginning of the year, two Thai films have surpassed the 100 million baht mark in revenue.

The Nation

The Nation



File photo provided by The Nation.

December 20, 2023

BANGKOK – In 2023, nearly 60 Thai films premiered in theatres and around 20 more were released through online platforms.

Thai films typically generate only around 30% of the revenue of Hollywood movies. But since the beginning of the year, two Thai films have surpassed the 100 million baht mark in revenue.

This was most noticeable in the third quarter of 2023, when the much-hyped blockbuster “Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One”, seriously underperformed, while Thai films, particularly “Undertaker” and “Tee Yod”, were a massive success. Their earnings will contribute significantly to the overall revenue for Thai cinema this year, boosting confidence in Thai films and reconnecting audiences with the industry.

Another crucial factor contributing to the success of many Thai films this year was Hollywood’s decision to suspend work due to the strikes led by two influential associations in the industry – the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA.

These associations played a significant role in organising work stoppages due to dissatisfaction with film studios regarding revenue sharing and the unauthorised use of AI and led to the postponement of various film projects.

This, in turn, meant that key competitors for Thai films were reduced. The delay in Hollywood projects could be one of the factors contributing to the remarkable success of “ Undertaker” and “Tee Yod” as they had less competition during their release periods.

But that doesn’t take away from their unprecedented success. The biggest phenomenon this year has been the success of “Undertaker”, the latest film in “ThaiBan The Series”, the brainchild of a small group of young filmmakers with a modest budget and featuring unknown actors.

Originally “ThaiBan The Series “ targeted audiences in the northeastern region of Thailand. Starting with low-budget regional films, they gradually developed their skills by working on several projects over six years.

Typically, other films peak in viewership during the first week and then experience a decline in the second week. However, “Undertaker” saw an increase in viewership in the second and third weeks, defying the usual trend.

This success story highlights the impact of grassroots filmmaking, showcasing that with dedication and skill development, even small-budget productions can capture the attention and loyalty of audiences.

Suwit Thongrompho, the CEO of SF Corporation, commented on the phenomenon, saying, “We have a total of 391 cinemas, and 80-90% of them are showing for this film, regardless of the opening time. Even the 2am screenings are full.”

What makes this film even more unique is that initially, it was supposed to be shown only in theatres in the northeastern region. However, the momentum steadily increased to the point where even cinemas in Bangkok, Northern, Central, and even Southern regions had to include it in their lineup.

Pundits say the success of “Undertaker” can be attributed to a strong existing fan base that has carried over from previous works. The film’s content is considered well-rounded, featuring humour, thought-provoking elements, and a cultural resonance that echoes the lifestyle of people in the northeastern region. However, it has also become apparent that audiences from all regions can relate to and understand the film.

In the end, “ThaiBan The Series”, which started with a budget of 2 million baht for the first episode, has grown exponentially, expanding into a film that has generated revenue of almost a billion baht.

Beyond the revenue, the “Undertaker” phenomenon has created a momentum that is bringing people back to the cinemas to watch movies. One film that has received attention in this wave is “Tee Yod” (“Death Whisperer”). Just one day after its release, it shattered the record for the highest opening revenue for a Thai film, reaching 39 million baht.

The film gained popularity through online forums like Pantip, where it developed a fan base due to its scary storyline. This anticipation carried over to the film adaptation, making it highly anticipated and well-received.

In addition, “Tee Yod” invested heavily in advertising, had effective promotions, high-quality cinematography, and featured well-known actors including Nadech Kugimiya. The film was also released in the IMAX format, the first Thai film to do so, further attracting audiences to theatres.

Both “ Undertaker” and “Tee Yod”, released in close succession, achieved remarkable success with high box office revenues. “ Undertaker” generated over 700 million baht, while “Tee Yod” earned more than 500 million baht.

These films stand out as the top-grossing movies in Thailand for the year.

“This phenomenon indicates that we need to create good movies and quality content. People are ready to come out and watch if the movie is good. We must create works that are good and pay attention to the script and promotion,” Bundit Thongdee, an expert in the field of film from the Ministry of Culture, noted

“First, we intend to make it good, even if it doesn’t please everyone. At least, we put our effort into making a quality product. Second, we need to consider the surrounding elements. There must be promotion and a well-thought-out advertising plan. It’s not enough to finish making a movie; it needs to be promoted. Some people don’t have an advertising budget and think that just going online is sufficient, but it’s not enough.”

The turnaround in the fortunes of Thai cinema has been welcomed. Over the past few years, Thai cinema has faced a decline, with the industry lacking freshness. Viewers have demanded that creators break away from the traditional genres, as they grew tired of the same old romantic, comedy and ghost films.

When attempts were made to create new genres, it sometimes resulted in unfamiliar territory for both creators and viewers, leading to difficulties in producing content that makes money. This led some creators to revert to safer, familiar paths.

The emergence of streaming services has further disrupted these patterns, as the convenience of watching movies at home without additional costs means that many enthusiasts are less inclined to take risks on new genres, especially Thai films, which may not gain popularity easily.

The need for continuously introducing new content each week on streaming platforms has encouraged some providers to invest heavily in attracting skilled creators to produce diverse and original content. This has contributed to the improvement of the quality and efficiency of Thai cinema in the current year.

“Hunger”, a socially provocative film presented in the form of a culinary movie, is the first Thai film to make it to the Global Top 10 Films list on Netflix. “The Murderer”, a northeastern Thai film, is the first of its kind on Netflix, delving into the search for truth in a murder case. Meanwhile, “Once Upon A Star” takes the audience on a journey to experience the atmosphere of the old days.

“Undertaker” also explores familiar themes but presents them in a novel way. It delves into the lives and deaths experienced by undertakers, a profession often overlooked by many. Without them, funeral ceremonies might not be conducted.

The recently released “4 Kings 2” tackles the story of kids involved in street fighting, a scenario commonly seen in the news. Nostalgic films like “You & Me & Me” and “I Love You Two Thousand,” which take us back to the Y2K era, have plenty of charm. On the other hand, action-packed films like “Khun Pan 3” have become a rarity, although its success was evident as it became the first Thai film of the year to surpass the hundred million baht mark in revenue.

The latter part of the year has also seen a few noteworthy films. “Redlife” tells the story of marginalized men in Bangkok society, while “Doi Boy”, an award-winning film from the Pusan International Film Festival, deals with illegal migrant labourers who come to work as prostitutes in Chiang Mai and won its lead actor the Rising Star Award at the BIFF x Marie Claire Asia Star Awards2023. “Pattaya Heat”, an action-packed film that concludes the year, is a collaboration between Thailand and China, featuring leading actors competing in intense scenes.

Additionally, “Solids by the Seashore” explores a love story emerging in a southern province of Thailand and has been selected to compete in the New Currents category at the Pusan International Film Festival.

All these films showcase unique and novel ideas, capable of making a significant impact on the Thai film industry. It is pleasing to witness such innovations within the confines of traditional movie theatres and they serve as evidence not just that the Thai film industry continues to produce quality works, but that there is a substantial audience ready to support them.

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