Let there be light
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Let there be light

With cheaper technology, outdoor cinema is making a mild comeback

Let there be light
Inside Decha's movie screening truck. Phoytos: Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

Outdoor cinema, or nang klang plaeng, rose and fell and has risen again, its popularity reflecting the changes in technology and taste of Thai viewers. Once suffering due to home entertainment and the spread of multiplexes into rural areas, outdoor cinema, having found a footing, has made a surprising comeback.

More than just a nostalgic outing, outdoor screenings can be found today at funerals, ordination ceremonies, kae bon (repaying spirits after a wish is answered), temple fairs, or celebrations at Chinese shrines, mostly in outer provinces but sometimes in the outskirts of Bangkok. In the Northeast, outdoor film caravans are very active, with various operators criss-crossing small districts, setting up screens to show films -- mostly Thai comedies or Chinese action films -- and the relatively convenient digital technology has contributed to its new-found popularity.


On a grassy lawn outside a temple, 43-year-old Decha Saipat stood on the back of his truck, loading a film reel into his vintage movie projector. The Sun was setting. And in the twilight, when the sky turned a darker shade of orange and blue, the light beam from the projector illuminated the towering screen situated over 20m away from his truck. The moving pictures and sound came alive.

Recently, Baan Nong Bua Temple in Suwannaphum district in Roi Et province was having their annual celebration to pay homage to Buddha's relic. During the day, there were molam performances. When evening came, it was time for the movie caravans to fire up their projectors late into the night. There were five screens from five different operators showing that day, and Decha was one of them.

Decha can't seem to remember how many years he's been operating an outdoor movie caravan such as this. "A long, long time," the Roi Et native said. He told us his movie projector is over 30 years old.

"I sort of took over my father's business," he said. "He used to screen 16mm and 35mm films back in the day, even lending his voice for a live narration. I guess I do have a long bond with outdoor cinema."

Most outdoor cinema operators in the Northeast now screen films from digital files, beamed through a projector. This relatively cheap, efficient -- and legal -- technology has assisted the resurgence of the practice.

Outside of hired events, Decha would head out to far villages to screen movies. And just like every other caravan, he would mark off an area with a strip of cloth, set up the screen and charge about 30 baht to those who want to come in and watch a film.

"We make a few thousand baht a night from that," he said.

Outdoor cinema makes for affordable entertainment for people in rural areas far away from movie theatres. Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

According to him, one of the most popular films of choice for outdoor cinema the past year is Som Pak Sian, an Isan romantic comedy directed by Bussarakam Wongkamlao.

"People tend to like films that aren't too serious. In Isan, we have our own comedy films like Pu Bao Tai Baan and Som Pak Sian. They don't have complicated plots and people can laugh along easily," he said. Aside from comedy, action movies starring Jackie Chan are also popular.

New titles like Som Pak Sian are available only on digital projection systems, which are widely used now in both movie theatres and outdoor cinemas due to the lower cost and ease in maintenance and operation.

Decha owns and operates both digital and film systems, though he said he prefers film for its nostalgic feel. He also keeps a vast collection of vintage film reels at home that he screens if the people hiring him don't have a specific requirement on what type of movie they want.


Surin native and filmmaker Sakchai Deenan, who directed the Thai-Lao films Sabai Dee Luang Prabang and From Pakse With Love, recalled how outdoor cinema survived in Thailand through the years.

"The boom period of outdoor cinema was in early 1980s and well before that. There used to be stand-alone cinemas in several big districts, but not in far out areas. Televisions were very expensive at the time. Some houses didn't even have electricity. So, outdoor cinemas were people's go-to choice and often the only option for some to watch movies," said Sakchai.

Outdoor cinema presented a major chapter in Thai cinema history. In the 1950s and 60s, nang kai ya ("medicine-seling movies") was a sales strategy of pharmaceutical companies that dispatched movie caravans throughout the country to offer free screenings, interrupted by live advertising as the salesmen plugged their medicine to the gathering viewers. At its peak, it is estimated that there were 1,500 to 2,000 movie trucks travelling up and down the country, before the government put a restriction on the medicine trade.

After television became more affordable, the popularity of outdoor cinema saw a decline, especially later in the video and then VCD era in early 2000s that followed.

"The platform of entertainment was always changing," Sakchai commented. "But through it all, outdoor cinema never really disappeared, especially in the days when we had movies out on film reels. "Later, as we came into the time of pirated movies on VCD and DVD, that was a recession period as the outdoor cinemas couldn't really catch up with the pace of pirated ones."

But in these past few years, movies on discs are disappearing as people migrate online to watch films. As a result, outdoor cinema is making a comeback, said Sakchai.

"Some people may have watched the films before, but perhaps on the small screen of their phone. So when an opportunity comes for them to see a film they like on a big screen for just 30 baht or even for free, that was showing right in their village -- a rural area that's far from proper cinemas -- then they'd go out and enjoy themselves," he said.


While the movie caravans no longer have to fight with pirated VCD and DVD as in the past, piracy remains ever a problem as they still have to put up with operators who screen movies illegally.

According to Decha and his fellow movie caravan man Arun Nujit, one has to register with the Ministry of Culture and pay 2,500 baht for a five-year license to broadcast films legally as outdoor cinema operators. Additionally, they also have to seek the screening rights for individual films from the production company.

"In Roi Et, we buy the screening right as a group from the movie sales. And if others are going to screen this same film in our province, they have to pay us the fees," said Decha.

Fees vary according to the popularity of each film. For the Isan smash hit Som Pak Sian, Decha said his group of about 20 operators paid 120,000 baht for one-year rights to screen this film within Roi Et. He said other films may carry a lower price tag.

It should be noted that not every film is selling its screening rights, especially those from big studios, for fear of piracy. Sakchai said that for those who still want to screen films legally, some of them actually put money together to make their own budget films, often comedies with some action scenes and monks. These films would be screened at cinemas in the city "just for the sake of tradition", added Sakchai, with little regard to how it performs at the box office. Once out of the cinemas, the films are sent straight to caravans in rural areas.

"Nothing goes on discs anymore," Sakchai said. "It's a bit like in the West. Theirs go straight to online streaming, ours go to outdoor cinema caravans."

But, of course, not everyone cares about following procedures and doing things the right way.

"It's very easy to set up and operate a movie caravan now that we're in a digital era," Decha said, speculating that there are close to 100 operators within Roi Et alone, and he is unsure how many of them actually conduct their business legally. "They only need a screen, a projector, and an audio system to get a business going. And in recent years, there have been many new faces popping up."

Depending on the specifications, Decha said that a digital projector priced at 15,000 baht is good enough for an outdoor screening. A film projector could cost as much as 50,000 baht.

As for income, the caravans can make an average 2,000-3,000 baht a night screening movies in rural villages. They get paid more if they are hired to screen films at events, which can range from 4,000 to over 10,000 baht a night.

In the past, Decha said he and his friends used to be much busier as there were many events going on. "We used to have only two days off a month," he said. Now, it's difficult to even get three-to-four jobs a month.

"People who are doing things right like us are losing out," complained his friend Arun. "Those cheap people just grab movie files online. They don't have any expenses and then they cut prices, taking the customers with them."

Aside from the effect of illegal operators, Decha and Arun said the current state of our dwindling economy also affects the outdoor cinema business.

It seems people can't afford to hire movies anymore.

"Before, when someone died, they'd hire a movie right away. Movies were really popular at funerals, as well as merit-making events," said Decha. "Now, we're surviving at all with kae bon."

Sakchai says the business of outdoor cinema will survive even with online streaming services available at everybody's fingertips. The experience that comes with outdoor cinema is quite incomparable. As in Roi Et on the evening of the temple's celebration, friends and families brought a mat from home to picnic and party on the lawn as they watched films on giant screens. And since the caravans were hired, the people got to see movies for free.

The industry is still thriving and striving, but perhaps not flourishing, Sakchai says. The question of whether it'll be able to sustain itself remains to be seen.

The film reel has to be rewound to prepare for future screenings. Pattarapong Chatpattarasill

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