Netflix: A New Revenue Stream for Thai Films?

The Thai film, ป่า - The Forest, has its global Netflix premiere on April 26. 2Mag sits down with Director Paul Spurrier to discuss the evolution of film distribution.

April 20, 2017
Now broadcasting to 190 countries, Netflix currently has 94 million paid streaming subscribers: 49 million American and 45 million international viewers. With more than twice as many new customers coming from overseas markets, it makes sense that Netflix will expand its offerings to appeal to various markets.

On April 19, ป่า - The Forest, a Thai language film shot in Thailand by expat Paul Spurrier, premiered internationally on Netflix. What would otherwise have been a charming indie film with a niche audience of fim festival attendees and those lucky enough to catch its short run in Thai cinemas, is now available to millions of viewers. 2Mag sits down with director Paul to discuss the impact of streaming services on the Thai film industry.

It was at a film festival in Bangalore several years ago that Paul became particularly aware of the struggle and challenges of local film industries who he feels are effectively “at war with the American film industry.” There is no doubt that Hollywood films seek to dominate local markets and they have massive advantages in doing so, Paul informed us, noting that local filmmakers have long been required to pay for film printing fees, for example, effectively subsidizing the already more advantaged American films.

Here in Thailand, Paul cites the number of Thai films screening in local theaters as evidence, with the percentage of Thai films declining year on year to a low of 15% in 2016. Few Thai films are shown on Thai TV as well, and the demise of the DVD market has dried up a once-profitable revenue stream, creating “a perfect storm for the decline of Thai film,” Paul explains, stating that less than 10 of the roughly 50 Thai films released each year turn a profit.

Ironically, while it was the Internet—specifically illegal downloads—that killed the DVD market, streaming services, such as Netflix and Amazon, offer Thai filmmakers “a ray of hope in an otherwise bleak and depressing reality,” according to Paul. In addition to offering a global audience, streaming services have subscribers who have essentially already paid to watch every film, and are therefore more likely to watch the films on offer, including Thai films.

When I suggest that the new reality is win-win-win for filmmakers, streaming service, and viewers, as Netflix and Amazon can take greater chances on smaller films with less investment than theater distributors would, and filmmakers have a greater chance of getting some return on their films, even if they don’t break out, Paul agrees that the new model has such potential. By choosing to release The Forest to its international clientele, Netflix appears well aware of both increasing interest in diverse films from an international audience and the Thai diaspora who would otherwise have no access to many films in their native tongue.

For The Forest, which would have otherwise “disappeared” after its brief theater run in Thailand, it’s now one of maybe 100 Thai-language films available on the streaming service, giving it relatively prominent positioning. Paul agrees that one benefit of the new reality is that your film doesn’t simply disappear: it continues to exist, to be available to viewers. This, to him, is a vast improvement on the former reality in which many films that are produced around the world are unavailable except—generally speaking—by illegal download.

Another benefit to the Thai film industry, Paul points out, is that, before streaming services became viable outlets, a major problem was that the economics of film were generally a one-way street: Hollywood films came into Thailand and the money went out. Now a product from Thailand can be “exported” abroad and the money can flow back in, he explains.

When asked more specifically how Netflix changes the game for Thai films from an economical standpoint, Paul reminds us that, despite opening up new markets, the revenue from selling a film to a streaming service still doesn’t come close to the DVD sales of a decade ago. Otherwise, Paul agrees that when choosing a story for a film and thinking about how to make that film, it’s important to consider a now broader audience. Much as Hollywood has adapted to appeal to important new markets, particularly China, filmmakers in Thailand need to rethink their audience.

“Does a Thai film need to be in Thai language?” Paul ponders while considering how Thai films can change to appeal to a global market. “What was the highest grossing foreign language film in the USA?” he asks. “Probably Crouching Tiger [Hidden Dragon], and that audience was still very niche,” he replies. That said, Paul feels that, with a global audience on a streaming service, practically any film will find those who will appreciate it: “Whatever you make, there’s someone who wants it,” Paul explains. “Your film, even if it’s not Spiderman...there’s a group of people out there who will think it’s the best thing they’ve ever seen,” he declares.

As Paul begins shooting his latest film Eullenia (working title), his decision to make the film half in English and half in Thai was, in part, driven by changes in the market. “We are now seeing that you must think internationally,” Paul proclaims. Producer David Cluck, who backed both The Forest and the new film, agrees that the new reality makes it more palatable to invest in Thai films. At the same time, David feels that the new film deserved twice the budget as The Forest (which had a “super low” budget) because it has an international cast and is partly in English. Even after the hugely critical success of The Forest and it’s sale to the Netflix, for David, deals with streaming services are more of a backstop. He has high hopes for the new film to succeed in the traditional sense, having experienced such as first assistant director on The Artist, a French, black-and-white, “silent” film that went on to gross $133 million and earn five Academy Awards.

While the market has become increasingly more difficult, technology has made filmmaking easier and more affordable. One thing that prompted Paul to make The Forest, in fact, was a lecture he gave to film students in which he told them that it was more important for them to go out and make films than sit in lectures. Unlike when he was a film student, having to shoot on 16mm cameras and all the money and effort that goes hand-in-hand with actual film, these students could make a film and win an Oscar with the tools they already had. When a student asked him why he wasn’t taking his own advice, he was prompted to embrace and explore this new way of making films in the digital age and found it both inspiring and liberating. That the film he created is now being distributed on a new digital platform seems very appropriate.

At the same time, one feature of The Forest that drew praise was the look of the film as a result of a particular camera Paul shot the film on. Acknowledging that nearly all theaters are digital now anyway, I wondered how he felt about people watching his films on TV as opposed to in a theater. Paul points out that, nowadays, the best writing and the best acting is already occurring on TV. Fifteen years ago, there was a real difference between the experience in a theater and watching a VHS on a tube TV. In addition to the development of digital TV, Netflix QC standards are incredibly high, Paul explains, certainly better than the quality of most illegally downloaded movies. In the end, Paul declares: “As a filmmaker, isn’t it better that someone saw your film and enjoyed it on an iPhone than if they didn’t see it at all?”

The Forest is currently available worldwide on Netflix. Learn more about the film on The Forest official Facebook page. Paul Spurrier can typically be found at The Friese Greene Club, a small, private member's club he founded in Bangkok that is dedicated to those who have a passion for cinema; filmmakers, film students, film journalists, or film enthusiasts.

About The Forest: A new teacher arrives at a small village in rural Thailand. He has just left the monkhood and has taken a job at the local school in a quest to discover life outside the monastery. He finds that one of his pupils is a mute girl who is being bullied by the other children in the class. Both the teacher and the girl must face the challenges and cruelties of the real world. The girl retreats into a fantasy world, finding solace in the forest with a strange wild boy. The teacher struggles to bring her back, whilst at the same time himself questioning the world of reality. The worlds of fantasy and reality clash with tragic consequences. (IMDB) Watch the trailer: