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The cover of the film Run with a sticker indicating it is one of Cambodia’s few legitimate DVDs
The cover of the film Run with a sticker indicating it is one of Cambodia’s few legitimate DVDs. Charlotte Pert

Industry plundered

No, not zombies – despite making great strides, Cambodia’s fimmakers say their industry is being dragged down and sucked dry by DVD pirates

With a bit of searching among the reams of bootleg movie discs at Sihanouk Boulevard’s CD World – with their poorly photocopied and typo-ridden covers – it’s possible to find a legitimate copy of the only Cambodian title sold legally in the Kingdom.

After a brief stint in local cinemas in late 2013, the locally produced zombie horror flick Run was released on DVD by Westec Media. It’s a mistake that the film’s producer Touch “King Dom” Oudom, who has yet to receive a dollar from DVD sales, vows never to repeat.

“We are not going to make a movie and put it on the DVD again – never, ever,” Oudom said during an interview.

“We’re risking our [livelihoods] to make the movies because we have to spend a lot of money ... and when you steal it from us, it means you kill us.”

While the local film industry seems to be finally making a comeback after being decimated by the Khmer Rouge – more local films are produced every year and the quality continues to improve – filmmakers say pervasive piracy makes releasing films for home viewing commercial suicide.

DVD raid
A police raid searches for pirated DVDs in March, 2014. Vireak Mai

Filmmaker Sok Visal, who directed the 2013 heist film Gems on the Run, said the only way for local films to make any money was through the cinema box offices.

While Oudom’s Run was available for illegal download as soon as it was released on DVD, Visal has ensured the pirates never got their hands on Gems on the Run by only giving copies to trusted cinemas and film festival organisers. Films are watermarked for festivals, he added, while Phnom Penh cinemas tightly monitor patrons to prevent illegal recordings.

“It’s always hard to send the DVD, or even a link to the screener on the internet – you’re always afraid that someone is going to find a way to download the film and distribute it,” Visal said.

Gems on the Run has had two seasons at local cinemas – in 2013 and again last year – and Visal said a new edit was slated for screening in the middle of this year.

“At the end of the day, for me, it’s not about making money, but at least get our money back, whatever we invested,” he said. “Of course, the dream would be to make enough money to make the next one.”

Filmmaker Chhay Bora is President of the Motion Picture Association of Cambodia, which lobbies the government to take action against piracy while promoting legal alternatives.

He said that the total box office take for local films doubled to about $500,000 in 2014, but only about 20 per cent of the 20 Cambodian movies released last year made money.

If copyright laws were enforced, he said the proliferation of legal DVDs, currently priced from $2.50 to $3, could provide a revenue stream to filmmakers, with royalties of about 30 per cent.

In the meantime, however, he conceded that eliminating piracy was a far-off dream.

“All the shops are selling the illegal DVDs, even CD World. And the CD World owner is an active member of the MPAC,” he said, adding that the MPAC only focuses on getting bootlegs off the market if the rights are owned locally.

Currently, DVD distribution rights for 10 mostly Thai and Indonesian movies are owned by the companies Westec Media and Sabay MVP. The MPAC lobbies the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts to crack down on the illegal distribution of those titles, but Bora said the authorities were not doing their job.

Filmmaker Sok Visal avoided having his film Gems on the Run pirated
Filmmaker Sok Visal avoided having his film Gems on the Run pirated. Hong Menea

“The ministry seems to be slipping, never caring to crack down on illegal DVD shops,” he said.

The Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts’s film department director Sin Chansaya could not be reached for comment.

Chheang Leng, co-owner of CD World, said that while he supports legal DVD sales and only sells bootlegs that are otherwise unavailable in Cambodia, customers wouldn’t pay an extra dollar for a legal version of their films.

“If they release the DVD, then of course they will pirate the DVD. Mostly they want cheap DVDs,” he said.

A seller at Russian Market last week, who declined to be named, said she used to sell legitimate copies provided by CD World for $3 but no longer.

“Now it is too expensive,” she said.

After fetching it from elsewhere, another stall owner offered to sell for $1.50 a bootleg copy of the film The Expendables 3, the rights to which are owned locally by Sabay MPV and distributed through CD World.

“We have problems with the licenses from the cinema,” she said when asked why the movie wasn’t kept with the rest of her merchandise.

But despite shoddy copyright enforcement and the cynical mood of local industry players, Italian filmmaker Jimmy Henderson, whose Khmer-language martial arts film Hanuman premiered in Cambodian cinemas last month, said he would consider releasing a DVD.

“There’s always the risk [of piracy], but it’s a risk around the world – it can happen anywhere you go,” he said, adding that he would discuss with his partners where and how to release it on DVD after it’s submitted to film festivals.

The silver lining, said Visal, was that filmmakers’ emphasis on cinema releases was reviving the movie-going culture that thrived in the 1960s.

“They lost that until three years ago, when they reopened the proper cinemas and people started to take pleasure in going to the movies again,” he said.

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