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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The craft of filmmaking on display, not just for box office returns

The craft of filmmaking on display, not just for box office returns


Michael Chai of film distributor Westec Media ltd and minority owner of Legend Cinemas.

The Malaysian who brought Hollywood movies to Cambodia, Michael Chai of Legend Cinemas, says the 3D movie experience is not just a fad, but here to stay.

Chai, who opened Legend Cinemas on July 7, 2011, says a new type of clip-on 3D glasses will be available for moviegoers that will cost about US$1 and can be kept as the property of the viewer.
“Worldwide, 3D is going to keep going up. It is not just a fad. That contradicts what I said a year ago,” Chai said.

As someone who grew up with standard two-dimensional movies, Chai was amazed when he offered films like Transformers and Captain America in both 2D and 3D here in Phnom Penh at Legend Cinemas, and 95 per cent of the patrons chose 3D.

In the seasonal nature of movie industry, Chai said Cambodia is pretty much like the rest of the world. While Legend Cinemas had low ticket sales during the winter months from November to February, things really picked up in March this year.

“May, June and July set and broke records this year. By now, August has settled down a little,” he said.

“It has been rocky but exciting. It all comes down to what people want to watch. Based on movie choices, Cambodians are no different than any other Asians,” he said.

Chai has reduced his shareholding in Legend Cinemas to a minority position, in favour of local investors, but has retained his distributorship of Hollywood films for Cambodia through his Westec Media Ltd. vehicle.

Chai and his partners at Legend Cinemas intend to open two more cinemas in Cambodia next year, one more in Phnom Penh, and one in Siem Reap.

We’re hoping to get both of them open, before next April, ahead of Khmer New Year,” he said. “Generally blockbuster movie season runs from March through July.”

As part of his commitment to the viewing public here in Cambodia, Chai is picking films including Circus Olay in 3D, as well as Les Miserables and Ang Li’s Life of Pi.

“We don’t want to just keep bringing in a certain kind of movie. I think it is our responsibility to help the movie industry grow. Movie is culture at the end of the day.”

“Movies like Life of Pi are not going to make money like The Avengers, but we owe it to the people here to bring in something beyond thrills.”

In addition to bringing in a variety of films for the public, Chai’s distribution company, Westec Media Ltd. is supporting local Cambodian movie titles.

“They have to transition into the digital cinema technologies. Westec is funding the local production of a horror film,” he said. “I believe that there is a lot of talent here in Cambodia. I’m constantly surprised because I can spot talent and I’ve seen some incredible cinematographers. I saw a fight scene in a Khmer movie that was really, really good. They go all out and it is fun to watch but. It may be too unpolished, but I love the spirit. We will be releasing more titles and Asian content as well,” he said.

Westec Media will have a booth at the Pusan International Film Festival in Korea this October.

“I’m going to showcase what Cambodia has started to offer the rest of the world. Because the standards aren’t so high, most countries won’t pick them up, but it is a start. This industry does exist in Cambodia.”

As a Malaysian, Chai is proud of his fellow Malaysians coming together at the Berish Rally 3.0 at Kuala Lumpur on April 28, organised by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections.

“One thing I am proud of is I’ve seen Malaysians come together, unhappy with the government. I do seen majority of Malaysians coming together. I never had my friends go for a rally before. I’ve never seen people united under something like this. Everybody’s angry, but at the end of the day this is great. I’m proud of Malaysians for that. I’m never ashamed of being a Malaysian, but I am saddened by what’s happening to my country,” he said.

“Responsibility comes from within. People are looking inwards, looking how we ourselves are responsible. People are upset with the fact that the cost of living is going up and that crime has gone up,” Chai said.

Chai and his wife Hannee, who studied in the United States, have a young daughter, Halyn, who is 2 and-a-half years old.

Both Chai and his wife enjoy the company of Cambodian people.

“I like the people here. They are very similar to Malaysians and warm from the start.” In his business, Chai believes in training up his team so they can take over in the future.

“I have a good team of hard working, honest people. We have 16 people at Westec and 60 at Legend Cinemas,” he said.

Movie tickets at Legend Cinemas, located in City Mall, sell for $3 in the case of standard movies, and $5 for 3D. Popcorn costs about $1.50.

“Come and see what you’re missing,” Chai says to the public. “If you can make it on a week day, that’s a great time to come, in the early evenings because weekends are crowded.”

Movie screenings start at 10 am, and the last screening starts at 9:30 pm.

One of the reasons Chai spun off the majority of Legend Cinemas to local partners was to separate his primary business, film distribution, from theatre ownership.

“There is an inherent conflict. As distributors we want to take care of studios. As a theater we want to make money. Deciding on the profit share between cinema and the studios, they always want more.

As distributor, whose interest do we take care of?”

As someone who comes from a background of doing cinema audits in Malaysia on behalf of the Hollywood studios, Chai would rather keep integrity and not blur the lines.

“That’s why we spun off the majority of Legend Cinemas to our local partners.”

Chai said the past several months have record-setting with top earners including The Avengers, Transformers, Kung Fu Panda, Spiderman and Batman.

“We’re getting a good mix of movie patrons,” he said.

In a normal theatre business, about 65 per cent of revenue comes from concession: drinks, candy and popcorn. From the ticketing revenue, at least 50 per cent goes back to the studio.

In July, Legend Cinemas in City Mall received up to 1,000 visitors per day. The record set was 2,200 people for the opening day of The Avengers.

“Since we opened, our performance has been very close to exactly how I thought it would be. Basically, how well we have done in ups and downs, is about identical to other markets. Cambodia shows no significant differences from the performances of theatres in Vietnam and Malaysia,” he said.

Chai said Asian people love simple stories. Local audiences loved Johnny English, he said.

“Westec Distribution remains committed to bringing high-quality films to Cambodia, whether they represent big profits or not.”



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