By Philip Jablon
(650 words, 7-minute read)
Over the past 20 or so years, Thailand’s movie exhibition industry – that is, the collection of businesses and activities involved in the commercial showing of films – has experienced sweeping change on multiple levels. The adoption of new technologies working in tandem with changes in movie consumption patterns has transformed almost every aspect of the movie-going experience. While movie theaters themselves have undergone the most noticeable change – going from single screen, stand-alone structures, each with its own architectural identity, to shopping mall-based multiplexes, uniform in atmosphere and owned almost exclusively by two national chains – other aspects of the industry have all but completely vanished.
One of the more lamentable casualties of Thailand’s movie theater industry is the movie billboard painter. At one time indispensable to the marketing of films, this craft has dwindled down to a bare-bones number of active artists.
But in the good old days of grand movie palaces, before the rise of the antiseptic theater chains, some of the nation’s most talented painters made a living by creating billboard-sized artwork to lure the crowds. Theater facades, commercial streets and prominent intersections in any sizable town would have been bejeweled in original works of king-sized art that rotated on a weekly basis. Some of the flashier illustrations were reserved for roving pick-up trucks, which trawled the streets announcing current or upcoming films for a particular theater, giving the works a mobile quality.
During the golden age of this art form, a given movie theater would have had at least one painter on the payroll. In some cases, the artist took up full time residency within the theater itself, sleeping in rooms built expressly to house them and the implements of their craft. In Bangkok, where multiple theaters competed for a finite number of movie-goers, billboard production took on an industrial quality, with warehouse-sized studios employing gangs of artists to create the most stunning representations in the largest size possible.
The imagery these workaday artists created was typically copied from lobby cards, posters and other promotional materials sent to theaters in advance of a film. Most painters enlarged the content of the advertisements via the grid method, a technique used to scale up the imagery by several times to make them billboard worthy. Others painted free hand. Either way, the result was usually eye-popping; a blitz of hand-painted color that in today’s insta-sharing world would be sure to multiply the viewership of these original works into a viral flurry, further promoting the movie in the process.
Regrettably, however, the movie billboard painting trade got hit hard in the mid-1990’s, when the introduction of large format printers to Thailand resulted in heavy competition for the artists. Theater owners, already feeling the squeeze of declining ticket sales, were no longer reliant on painters to create advertisements for their programming. One by one, theaters made the switch to printed advertisements, laying waste to an entire guild once deeply admired. It was a textbook case of machine making obsolescence of man.
Today in the larger Thai cities, LED screens have become the new norm for roadside movie ads, the single most effective (if not intrusive) way of drawing the eye of the passerby. But not all is lost in the realm of paint and brushes. There is one theater chain in southern Thailand that eschews the blinding commercialism of LED in favor of the soft stroke of the billboard painter. To this day Colosseum Cineplex keeps two studios in southern Thailand in business. One in Phuket and the other in Yala.
Another theater in Sisaket – MVP Cineplex – also employs a painter to do its movie ads. Once these few remaining artisans retire, it seems likely that the trade will be relegated to legend and the infrequent snapshot taken decades before. Featured here are a handful of those snapshots, gathered from photographers and private collections, in addition to a mini-documentary on the active studio in Yala.
Philip Jablon is a cultural researcher and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He has been documenting the stand-alone movie theaters of Southeast Asia as part of his Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project since 2009. His first photography book on the movie theaters of Thailand will be released later this year.