Movie-hungry expats in Phnom Penh are revitalising local film culture, with a new wave of cinemas springing up to screen contemporary foreign films.
A real cinema room with a beautiful screen and a beautiful picture…it’s not the same at home.
The last few years have brought mixed fortunes for cinema audiences in Phnom Penh. Venues screening local films have nearly all closed, victim to a piracy phenomenon cinema owners say they can’t compete with.
However, venues for foreign films have popped up around the city.
Phnom Penh now has venues including Meta House, focusing on documentaries; DVD movie house The Flicks, screening Hollywood movies and cult classics; and an old favourite, the French Cultural Centre (CCF), showing Francophone fare.
And it’s not just expatriates who have developed a taste for the cinema.
Mariam Arthur, CEO of film distribution company Kmy Films, says she knows several Khmers who regularly go to Bangkok for the weekend to watch movies.
“These aren’t only the rich kids. Middle-class business owners go to Thailand to purchase goods, and their kids go to the movies,” she said.
Co-owner of The Flicks, Martin Robinson, has found a niche audience amongst the English-speaking expats keen for some variety in their social life.
“Once you’ve done all the sights, and been to the bars, you hit a brick wall,” says Robinson.
Moviegoers also come for comic relief, he says. “Comedies do well,” he points out. “People working at the tribunal come in here after work, hearing about people getting tortured all day, and they just want to watch something funny.”
Alain Arnaudet, director of the CCF, says cinema is for everyone, and the local culture is more than receptive.
“Here people like to go out to see things, they are curious,” Arnaudet says, pointing to the success of the CCF’s regional touring cinema programme, which takes a mobile projector all over Cambodia.
“When we go on tour to the provinces, we have up to 2,000 people.”
Arnaudet says visual literacy, rather than words, is an obstacle to developing a strong cinema culture in Cambodia. Cambodians have “a lack of reference”, he says, as many locals have not grown up watching sophisticated styles of movies.
“They have difficulties sometimes in understanding the structure, if there is a ‘flashback’, or to follow multiple storylines,” he says.
At The Flicks, the issue for any such venue trying to run a business is the small size of the English-speaking population. “Just 20,000 or so expats, and half of them are French!” Robinson says, laughing.
While cinemas screening local and regional films generally blame DVD piracy for ruining their business, it may not be quite the same obstacle for those playing films from the West.
The French Cultural Centre pays copyright fees to screen films, although as a library and cultural institution, it pays quite modest contributions compared with a mainstream cinema.
Arnaudet does not see piracy as a major threat to his cinema, which can offer movies free of charge, with funding from the French government.
The appeal for audiences is in the cinema experience, he says.
“Going outside to meet people, to be in a real cinema room with a beautiful screen and a beautiful picture.… It’s not the same staying at home.”
Arthur hopes to use her years of experience in the film distribution business in the US to help reduce the impact of piracy here in Cambodia.
“We can’t expect to wake up one morning and have the problem of piracy solved,” she says. “It takes long-term investment and solid relationships in the ‘Hollywood’ film sales industry to bring about change.
“You have to have legal cinemas as a venue to screen legal movies.… The audience is ready to see international movies in Phnom Penh.”
She says she’s confident that everything is in place for a successful cinema industry in Cambodia.
“The day an investor is ready to build a cinema and screen licensed movies, the cinema culture will change – for the better,” Arthur says.
The question of affordability is on everybody’s lips. Many of the tiny venues around town say it would not be possible for them to pay Hollywood’s licence fees.
For now, they are meeting the demands of a cinema-hungry audience by providing a basic service for which there is no legal alternative.
Arthur says the local businesses trading in pirated DVDs are also doing the best they can under the circumstances.
“It is impossible for them to get licensed content on their own, so they buy DVDs from Malaysia,” she said.
“I really believe that most businesses want to comply with the law, they just have no access to do so.”
Kmy Films aims to help these businesses transition to legal DVD sales by making licensed movie content available at affordable prices.
To build a stronger cinema culture in Phnom Penh will also require some brave soul to invest in a big, comfy cinema showing contemporary foreign films at a reasonable price.
But, as someone said in a movie once, “If you build it, they will come.”