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Mon, Mar 11, 2002 - Page 19 News List

Thailand has stars in its eyes

The southeast Asian country is attempting to lure Hollywood film-makers with its lower production costs

AFP , BANGKOK

US director Francis Ford Coppola poses with Thai actresses, dressed in traditional royal Thai dresses, who appeared in the Thai epic Suriyothai, in Bangkok. Coppola is helping to bring a new version of Suriyothai to an international audience.

PHOTO: AFP

With its tropical beaches, emerald rice paddies and expanses of wild jungle, Thailand is a natural choice for foreign film crews looking for exotic locations to shoot in Asia.

But the government hopes Hollywood will soon look to Thailand as a highly skilled Asian film-making centee with a lot more to offer than pretty scenery.

"Productions in Hollywood can create any place, anywhere," said Pakinee Chaisana, executive producer of the Sixth Element, the international section of Thai entertainment company GMM Grammy.

One recent example is Jackie Chan's latest action flick, the Hong Kong-financed, US$35 million Highenders, which has just completed filming in a massive exhibition hall on the outskirts of Bangkok. Some 250 craftspeople, mostly Thai, worked to create the gloomy interior of a sixteenth century Irish castle, complete with twisting stairwells and Gothic archways.

Sculptors, usually employed on Thai temple restoration projects, crafted the heads of bulls, goats and deer that dotted the interior.

"They are the best sculptors I've met in my life," said standby art director Connor Dennison. "They're phenomenal."

Cheap, too -- and that's the bottom line for international film-makers looking to shift production out of high-cost locations like the US and Europe.

"The industry is now saying to the foreign filmmakers ... the quality is high here for your budget," said Pakinee.

Industry insiders say that with last year's threatened actors' strike in the US, a window of opportunity has opened for Thailand.

"There is a backlog of US productions looking for places to go now," said Don Balfour, managing director of Bangkok-based production company Phenix Films Asia. "For producers looking to film in Asia, Thailand is the best choice," he said.

The Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia are seen as unsafe, Hong Kong is expensive, China can strangle producers in red tape, and Thailand's poorer neighbors lack the infrastructure filmmakers require, Balfour said.

But the next year will be crunch time for Thailand as its bid to establish an Asian Hollywood is put to the test.

"We need to get it right. I don't think the current focus on Thailand will come around again," Balfour said.

Success will depend on better cooperation between the Thai government and film-makers who in the past have criticized the bureaucratic approach of the Thai Film Board, which issues the necessary permits.

Industry observers say things have improved since Sidhichai Jayant took over as Film Board director a year ago, revising actors' tax schedules and amending old permit regulations that had discouraged film-makers from heading here.

Sidhichai said he wants to set up a government committee charged with "helping facilitate foreign filmmakers in Thailand."

"Permits can now be issued very quickly, even quicker than in the United States," he said.

The verdict so far is good. "He's actively cut a lot of red tape, he's liaising between groups, he's giving us help in talking to higher people in ministries when we need it," Pakinee said.

But Ctar Sudasnd, chairman of production house Siam Studios, believes more must be done to ease the path of foreign film-makers who are often tripped up by Thailand's free-wheeling approach to business.

"A lot of people go away with a nasty taste in their mouth, saying that `Hey, this is a ripoff place man,'" he said. "So we need to address that."

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