Legend cinema was officially launched last Saturday, with a ribbon-cutting and Avatar-watching ceremony attended by Khieu Kanharith, Minister of Information, Khim Sarith, Secretary of the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, and So Mara, Secretary of the Ministry of Tourism.
Though the cinema has been screening Hollywood films for a couple of months now, the launch was the official pinch-in-the-arm moment needed to remind Phnom Penhites that watching international movies in a theatre with popcorn, rather than bootlegged Russian knock-offs on a laptop, was not just a glorious dream.
But rather than extolling the virtues of viewing Rise of the Planet of the Apes on the big screen, the speeches at the ceremony had a different focus – promoting the local cinema industry by cracking down on illegal DVD copies.
Khim Sarith gave a stirring speech about stopping the blackmarket trade, and Michael Chai, director of Westec Media, the film distributor to Legend, told 7Days that he is determined to keep the pirates on the proper side of the screen.
Chai said that the bootleg trade of local movies makes it impossible for production companies to get a return on their earnings, thereby kneecapping the industry altogether – a situation he also saw unfold in his home country of Malaysia.
“In the past, Malaysia was very similar to where Cambodia is right now. Malaysian cinema had its great heyday, then piracy came in and it completely crashed, and now it’s coming back up again,” he said.
“I’ve been involved in the industry in Malaysia for six or seven years and I’ve seen a reduction in piracy...Since then, you see local movies hitting past three to four million ringgit, which is about $1.5 million US dollars, at the local box office. That’s a big benchmark.”
Chai said that he is working with local production houses to generate more Cambodian movies. Not only so that they can be shown at Legend, but also so he can export them to other countries.
“Cambodia has enormous potential,” he said. “These guys are really creative. The houses here have great script writers, they have an incredible history of motion pictures, they were one of the leaders in the region about 30 to 40 years ago.”
Fortunately for Chai, the piracy trade is less likely to hurt the box office returns of big-budget international releases. But that doesn’t mean that all the blockbusters he brings in will pack the seats.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, for example, did not make the same impact in Phnom Penh that it did over the globe. And he doesn’t bother to import most American comedies, because while the language may translate, the humour doesn’t.
Chai is sticking mainly with the universal language – car chases and big explosions. Transformers 3 went gangbusters at Legend, and Fast Five also drew solid audiences.
Still, he’s wistful that Cambodian audiences may warm up to some of his favourite films.
“I love Shark Night 3D,” he said, referring to the much-maligned shlocky horror flick released earlier this year. “I’m a big fan of action, campy horror. I might bring it in just to see what the response is like.”