Bootleg DVDs are at present the only way to purchase films in Cambodia. A new organisation formed from 10 industry players including movie houses and production companies hopes to change that. Bennett Murray reports.
Since the initial influx of bootleg VHS tapes in the UNTAC days of the early 1990s, pirated movies have been the norm in Cambodia. Not a single shop in the Kingdom sells legitimate DVDs, and it was not until Legend Cinema and Platinum Cineplex opened in 2011 that foreign movies even had a legal avenue of distribution in the Kingdom.
With the odds seemingly stacked against them, however, several industry players plan to change the game. Ung Nareth, president of the Motion Picture Association of Cambodia (MPAC), which he founded in June, hopes that the Kingdom will soon see its first licensed DVDs go on sale. If things work his way, he said, bootleg DVD shops will be forced to legalise their operations or be shut down by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
“By probably the end of this year, we’re going to see things change completely,” Nareth said last Sunday, adding that he is pushing for change “with all [his] heart”.
To eradicate piracy, Nareth, a Cambodia-based line producer who most recently worked as a location manager on Hollywood film Clash of the Empires, has organised 10 industry players, ranging from small movie houses to production companies, to form a lobby with the aim of working with DVD vendors, the government and overseas distributors to create a viable market for legal movies in Cambodia.
Simon Chow of Westec Media Limited, which secures distribution rights from the “big six” Hollywood production companies (Universal, Walt Disney, Warner Brothers, Sony Pictures, 20th Century Fox and Paramount) for use in Cambodian cinemas, said that the MPAC will act as a lobby group for the film industry’s intellectual property rights.
“We need to move forward as an industry to let the government know that we are an industry in Cambodia and they need to do more for us,” said Chow, adding that copyright protection is the single greatest issue facing the Kingdom’s film industry.
Although the World Trade Organisation granted Cambodia an eight-year extension in June to fully enforce its copyright laws as required by its membership obligations, Nareth said that the government must start acting now, adding that Cambodia’s lack of intellectual property protection is a national embarrassment that scares off big overseas producers from doing business in the Kingdom.
“I have a hard time meeting with friends in Hollywood when I try to get them to shoot films here so we can bring jobs here. They say, ‘we don’t want to go there because Cambodia doesn’t have any law.’”
Chow said that it was a challenge for Westec to win the trust of the major studios due to the Kingdom’s rampant piracy, adding that one person with a camcorder in a cinema can cost a studio millions.
It is not just the foreign filmmakers, however, that Chow said the MPAC stands to protect. With virtually no copyright enforcement in their primary market, Chow said that local filmmakers do not even bother releasing legal DVDs. By creating a legal market for Cambodian-produced films on DVD, Chow said that the local filmmakers benefit.
“What’s important for the producers is that they make money from [movies], and from the profit they can make better movies. So it’s a win win.”
To start, the MPAC has recruited Phnom Penh’s CD World CD and DVD shop to work with international film companies to secure distribution rights. Walt Disney recently signed on as its first partner.
Chheang Leng, general manager of CD World, said that he decided to switch to legitimate DVDs because he did not see a long future in selling pirated goods.
“Instead of selling pirate, why not change to legal, now we have an option? Now we have legal cinemas, the big Hollywood studios will not leave us alone in the future, and may make problems with the Ministry of Culture.”
Once CD World has secured the rights to a given movie, the MPAC will systematically seek out vendors selling the movie illegally. After approaching a shop, it will be asked to start stocking the legal product. If the shop does not comply, the MPAC will file a complaint with the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, which is responsible for enforcing copyright law, to take legal action.
The director of cinema at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts said he personally supported the MPAC, but the person responsible for copyright protection could not be reached for comment.
Hopefully, said Nareth, the vendors will comply voluntarily, although he added that an MPAC survey conducted last summer in the Russian Market suggested that most DVD vendors are not yet onboard.
“It touches a lot of people, their family’s incomes. People say they sell products they know are illegal, but they don’t have any alternative way.”
A Boeung Keng Kang One DVD vendor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that more economic development needs to precede copyright enforcement.
“The law is we can’t sell, but Cambodia is still a poor country, and no one has the money to buy legal licenses,” said the shopkeeper, adding that he estimates it will take another five to 10 years for the country to catch up.
But Nareth said that legal DVDs, which he estimated would retail for $7-8 apiece, would increase profit margins. Switching to legal products would also “decriminalise” their businesses and save them the hassles of dealing in a black market.
“I’m not here to say: you’re illegal, you should go to jail. We’re going to show them by complying with international rules, you’re going to end up making more profit. You will do your business without risk of police coming to take the DVDs, you will stay away from this corruption. By doing this, you end up making more profit.” The fine for selling copied movies currently stands at 7,500 riel per pirated disc.
CD World’s Leng, whose business has sold pirated goods since it opened in 1996, said that it has only been in the past couple years that going legal seemed a feasible idea. To legally sell a movie in Cambodia, a local distributor must first obtain the rights from the copyright holder before submitting the film to the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts for censorship. The process takes time and money that Leng said he did not have.
“Before the MPAC started, I wanted to sell the original [DVDs], but how to do that? How much do I pay for one movie from a studio and how much do I get when I sell?”
But with the arrival of Legend Cinema and Platinum Cineplex, who have both joined the MPAC, important connections have been forged with international film companies.
Pushing films through the government bureaucracy is also made easier through the association.
“For an unimportant company to go the ministry, it is not an easy thing, so instead we use the MPAC so we can use a big voice of one association,” said Leng.
When asked if corruption would hinder his efforts, Nareth said he was confident that it would not.
“The Cambodian government wants to change. They see how important it is to change. They are ready for that.”
Nareth said small movie houses such as The Flicks and The Empire, which until now have been left to their own devices to receive the necessary approval from film studios and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, have joined the MPAC and will be asked to obtain screening rights through CD World as they become available.
As long as they keep a low profile and stay away from titles screening at Legend Cinema and Platinum Cineplex, Nareth said he will tolerate screenings of movies whose rights have not yet been obtained by CD World.
Niall Crotty, owner of Empire, said he supports the MPAC’s rules.
“We are members of MPAC and fully in support of these developments which offer a path to legitimacy for distribution and exhibition of titles here in Cambodia,” said Crotty, adding that he seeks to maintain good relations with the bigger cinemas and distributors.
Ramon Stoppelenburg of the Flicks said that the MPAC will improve the quality and selection of movies available at cinemas and movie houses.
“Before the MPAC, I would try to get as much approval [possible] for all the titles I play,” Stoppelenburg, who owns the venue, said.
Gaining screening rights may be a new concept in Cambodia, but Nareth is convinced that the time is right to encourage legal distribution.
“Most of the film industry people, most of the students, most of the people with some kind of education, they understand, they support the idea of copyright laws here.”