BANGKOK — There’s no magic formula behind Thailand’s highest-grossing films, says the studio behind “Bad Genius” and “Pee Mak.”
Making a hit movie is instead about the art of touching audiences, insisted both GDH (formerly GTH) cofounder Jira Maligool and head of script development Vanridee Pongsittisak at a Thursday discussion on ingenuity and film-making.
“The film has to touch the feelings of the audience in order to make a profit,” Vanridee said.
But that art, the pair philosophised, is about striking the right balance between the filmmaker’s personal interests and what might appeal to a mass audience.
Jira fundamentally believes that if filmmakers are fond of the film they are producing, audiences will probably feel the same. But in this simple philosophy for generating films with mass appeal is a daunting puzzle for filmmakers “who stand on top of the pyramid.”
Being on “top of the pyramid” refers to the fact that most filmmakers are graduates from the country’s prestigious Chulalongkorn University who “have distinguished tastes and lifestyles apart from the rest of the country,” said Jira, himself an alumnus.
“Directors can’t produce films that are outside their preferences, but they also have to make them appeal to everyone from the city center of Siam to the suburbs of Pak Nam in order to become commercially successful,” continued the studio co-founder.
Despite the insistence that there’s no magic ingredient for a successful film,
Ten of the nation’s 25 highest-grossing films are from GDH/GTH – with “Pee Mak” being the most commercially successful flick in Thai history. The studio claims that the 2013 comedy spin on a local horror legend earned a record-breaking 1 billion baht nationwide, though Thailand’s box office only records ticket sales in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
At first, Jira and Vanridee fumbled their way to that fine balance between personal preference and mass appeal. They still feel their blockbuster successes were coincidences because they “didn’t really know what audiences wanted.” The pair did not have a particular target in their minds during the screenwriting process, but merely followed individual curiosity.
“The idea for Pee Mak came from Wan [Vanridee] questioning why Pee Mak had to run away from his wife when he found out she was a ghost. So we twisted the legend to make Pee Mak accept that his wife is a ghost to differentiate it from earlier adaptations. We also made it comedic,” Jira recalled the screenwriting process behind “Pee Mak.” “We never thought about adjusting the screenplay for grassroots audiences.”
Ideas for Thailand’s next potential blockbuster are floated around in the two-story house where the studio is based. Jira said ideas can be found anywhere but “you have to be able to see it as a dramatic plot.”
“Bad Genius was inspired from a short news piece I heard when I was running on a treadmill. The news was about an Asian student who was caught cheating in a standardized test. They sat the exam in an earlier time zone and told the answers to their counterparts sitting the same exam in a later time zone,” Jira said. “I called Vanridee immediately upon hearing that story.”
“Bad Genius” centers around highschool student and math whiz Lynn, who uses elaborate schemes to help rich, academically challenged students cheat on standardized exams.
The country’s second highest-grossing film, “I Fine..Thank You..Love You,” was galvanized when Jira overheard a tutoring session between an English teacher and a stugglish Thai student in a Starbucks. This common coffee-shop scene eventually earned the studio a whopping 300 million baht in 2014 because it touched the “fear of speaking English” mentality common among Thais.
“I Fine..Thank You..Love You” follows a Thai man who has been dumped by his Japanese girlfriend, Kaya, because he cannot speak speak English with her. In an attempt to win back her heart, Yim takes English classes with a teacher, who happens to a friend of Kaya.
Although many GDH/GTH titles have swept multiple awards from both domestic and international critics, Vanridee does not believe that her studio is influential enough to dictate the taste of Thai cinephiles.
“The only influence we have is changing their mindset to see that Thai film is a normal thing for moviegoers to watch,” said Vanridee, who didn’t watch any Thai films during her youth as she found them to be “not cool” compared to Western standards.
The studio is considered one of Thailand’s largest film studios, but it has about three releases per year, compared to rival Sahamongkol Film International who has more than five releases annually.
“We are slow filmmakers. Sometimes we spend a whole year just drafting the screenplay,” Vanridee said.
In 2015, GMM Tai Hub (GTH) dissolved after an internal dispute over taking the company public. GDH was founded in 2016 by two of three GTH shareholders who inherited GTH’s crews and resources.
GDH/GTH films can be watched on Netflix with English subtitles.