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Development will bring respect to Cambodian film

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Photo by: Sovan Philong

Dear Editor,

Your 7Days edition on June 18 featured several articles on Khmer cinema. These articles contain a lot of good information. Thank you for sending out journalists to produce quality stories (unlike the first seven pages, which were all reprints from The Guardian. Shouldn’t it be the other way around?).

Your first story posited that Cambodia is “an exhausted location” (“Why does Hollywood continue to resist Cambodia’s charms?”).

Excuse me? Until recently, most films were shot on just that – film. The infrastructure in Cambodia did not support the use of film, and those who did (eg Lara Croft – Tomb Raider) racked up expenses building roads and bringing everything from Thailand. Now films are more often shot on a digital format like HD, which Cambodia is better able to accommodate.

Additionally, movies that were made without the government’s permission, such as Holly, had producers who went back to Hollywood with plenty of horror stories, creating a prejudice that is slowly being unravelled by efforts of the Cambodia Film Commission. Don’t underestimate word-of-mouth influence in such a close-knit community as Hollywood.

Next, does anyone really believe there are “good actors” under the age of 30? Maybe they are good for slapstick comedy and campy soap operas – but that isn’t going to cut it on the international level. Any film produced in Cambodia with the current actors – for any amount of money – is destined to fail if the producers attempt to sell it outside of Cambodia.

I turn a deaf ear to the actors who whine about Thai and Vietnamese actresses cast in the most recent international films produced in Cambodia, such as “Same, Same, but Different”. I was here when the director contacted every “acting” agency (usually supplying models and actors for commercials) to hold auditions for the “best” Khmer actors – not one was suitable for the lead.

These very same actors also whine about acting classes from a prominent Hollywood actor costing less than the price of the cell phone that they find the money to buy. They want classes for free.

The NGO “handout” mentality has saturated every level in Cambodia, but the tipping point has come. You can’t have business investment, economic zones and a stock exchange if you are still that needy. If you want something bad enough, you find a way. This is especially true for Khmers wanting to make it as actors.

I know of several productions getting ready to be made in Cambodia over the next year. I can guarantee that the serious actors who attend these classes will have an edge over everyone else. Does this mean I guarantee a job? Of course not! You must have the right look, be available during the time of shooting, etc. There are other considerations. Even so, every Khmer currently working as an actor should be clamouring to take advantage of this opportunity to raise the level of Cambodian cinema.

The issue of piracy is constantly targeted as a reason for the Khmer film industry failure. Have you forgotten that every other country must deal with piracy, too? Yet somehow, they are able to make movies. Piracy alone is not the problem, even though it is a contributing factor. It has struck at the heart of filmmakers and made them afraid to produce quality films. Of course, without education about the international film markets, they are right to save their money. But the information is available for those who dare to listen.

It would serve current producers well to stop seeing the Cambodian “pirates” as the enemy, and start looking at them as distribution partners.

When business models include privately run shops as licenced distributors, it becomes a win-win situation for everyone – as long as each side respects the model. Then law enforcement significantly reduces the number of pirates, enabling them to narrow their target and making their crackdown efforts more efficient.

In addition to being an art, film is a business. A lack of understanding about how feature films make money leads to poor production choices, which result in financial failure.

People with TV and documentary experience use their pre-Cambodia connections and experience to acquire grants and funding prior to producing their projects, so they don’t need to make money. They produce content that is definitely better than TV shows and documentaries made in the past. It is a valid part of a step-by-step process, and I have great respect for their efforts. But when we shift the focus to features, these productions are still found lacking.

Society seems to have adopted a “struggling artists” attitude toward filmmaking, as if it should be relegated to the realm of funding through philanthropy. However, filmmaking is a huge economic sector once production begins in earnest. Suppliers to productions include some obvious businesses such as catering, tailors, beauticians, translators and transportation.

Yet other businesses set to make money within the sector include architects to design sets, interior designers to furnish the sets, electricians to make sure lighting and camera wires are not overloaded, still photographers, animal trainers, weapons specialists, plumbers/septic specialists to make sure toilets are available on locations, musicians for original music, accountants.... As a sector, a working film industry can inject millions into the general economy when these secondary businesses thrive and people begin spending the money that they make.

So, what then is the future of cinema in Cambodia? Everything is already in place (as soon as the actors begin training in August). Equipment is not the problem – production companies own all the equipment necessary to make a viable movie – but they need to let the international filmmakers who already live in Cambodia help them learn how to use it correctly. Story ideas are not the problem – there are amazingly creative Khmers with current stories to tell – but they need to let international screenwriters who already live in Cambodia help them learn how to write a marketable script and set the plot/storyline. Piracy is not the problem – money can be made both in Cambodian cinemas and internationally.

In the business, we count up what are called “elements” to gauge what kind of return is possible when making a movie. Like any other business, you have to know who your market is (Khmer cinema, DVDs, festivals, international non-theatrical, etc). The type of production for one market is not the same as for another.

The next question is how fast can Cambodian cinema be revived? That depends on who will be the first producer to make a Khmer movie that will sell internationally. It will only take one. Then everyone else will follow. That is the Cambodian way – for coffee shops, magazines, banks, hotels.... Once they can see that the first one actually worked, they will all clamour to follow the same model.

So, the real problem is a lack of confidence and willingness to accept help that has been offered.

Mariam Arthur
CEO, Kmy Films
Phnom Penh

Send letters to: newsroom@phnompenhpost.com or PO?Box 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length. The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.

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