With the smell of fresh popcorn in the air, Malaysian cinema entrepreneur Michael Chai brings out a small plastic box with a handle and pops it open. Inside is what looks like a computer hard drive. On it is the movie Cars 2, which premiers tonight at Legend Cinema on the fourth floor of the City Mall on Monireth Boulevard adjacent to Olympic Stadium.
No longer do movie houses have to run celluloid film through projectors. Now comes the all-digital era. The movies on the hard drive come as an encrypted Digital Content Package.
“Later on we get a special file that unlocks it and allows us to screen it,” Chai said.
Movie premiers are only open to invited guests and usually the general public comes the following day, or anytime during the run of the movie. However, Chai is generous with premier tickets for supporters, reviewers and business associates.
“Premier nights are always by special invitation only,” he said.
Chai, 37, originally came to Cambodia to sell movies to the few existing cinemas in Phnom Penh – and after having no luck, was on his way back to the airport, and noticed City Mall.
“We went shopping and said let's build our own cinema. It was never our intent at the start to own our own cinema. The one at Sorya, Sabay Cineplex, became our first customer,” Chai said.
“I wanted to supply movies to the cinemas here. Both cinemas turned me down; they said Hollywood movies won’t work in Cambodia.”
After a few conversations with City Mall’s Taiwanese owners and lots of hard work building three big, sloped, comfortable theatres, Legend Cinema was born, serving popcorn, Coca-Cola, Mars and Snickers bars along with the latest Hollywood movies.
“When I first came here in September my visit was to look at the possibility for online games, and I noticed there were no cinemas here. One of my companies has been working with distributors in Malaysia, so I gave them a call. Would you guys give me a shot at this? The studios were really nice about it. They knew Cambodia was an untapped market, and they said lets give it a shot.”
Chai is the owner of BEEP Media, part of a group of companies he owns in Malaysia.
Chai’s business in Malaysia for the last six years has been focused on anti-piracy work; collateral checks and making sure the cinemas were reporting accurate sales figures.
Along with General Manager Jesmond Chong, also Malaysian, Chai is fussy about the quality of the popcorn, importing it from the United States and experimenting for the very best taste for the customers – different varieties for both salty and sweet.
Legend Cinema opened on July 7 with the movies Transformers 3, X Men First Class, Kung Fu Panda and Planet of the Apes.
Chai has been pleased with the response from the public. Many Cambodians, especially children, have never had a cinema movie experience, which makes watching a movie on TV dull by comparison. Chai and general manager Chong love listening to the squeals of delight and surprise from the Cambodian youngsters, many of them from homes for children on free tickets sponsored by Legend Cinemas, seeing animated films on the big screen for the first time in their lives.
Legend Cinema has three theaters; the largest of which seats 320; the middle size seats 270 the smallest has a capacity of 190.
“Generally we start at 10am, and there is a film that begins every two hours. Different movies are different lengths. 3D movies take a little longer turnaround, because they have to return the 3D glasses,” Chai said.
For 3D movies, patrons are issued 3D glasses which really do cause the experience of depth onscreen, making the action more lifelike and thrilling.
Movies cost $4 in general, while 3D movies cost $6.
“We do have some special VIP seats, with nicer chairs, bigger. VIP seats cost an extra $2.”
Popcorn costs $1.50, large $2.50, salted and buttered “and I’m very proud of it”, Chai said.
“We have people walking in here who come in a buy popcorn and leave and I like this location, it is open, has parking spaces, easy for people to come in and park upstairs. City Mall is brand new and located in the middle of the city.
“We’ve had packed houses for the movie Transformers for the first few days. I never seen this happen before, every single seat sold.”
Chai lived in Australia for 10 years, worked in a cinema and studied business systems at Monash University. He loves movies.
“I see cinema filling a very big gap in this Cambodian community. That is family activities. What do you do at night? A friend of mine drives his son around town. There’s not much family oriented amusement. I’ve also heard about Cambodians who could afford it will fly to another country to watch a movie. I thought this is nuts. Watching a movie is a great family healthy activity and it fills a really nice gap here and I would like everybody to at least have a chance to watch one on the big screen."
Legend Cinema on Facebook is very active, Chai says.
“We posted that link from The Phnom Penh Post to Facebook. In 10 minutes I couldn’t get on to The Phnom Penh Post website because there were so many hits."
Chai says the Cambodia Minister of Culture is proud of what Legend Cinema has accomplished and he feels fully supported by the ministry.
“I’m proud that the studios trusted me enough to give me the movies. We are talking to the ministries about how we can change Cambodia from being loosely operated to being very serious.
Chai has a Malaysian wife and a baby daughter, who divide their time between Cambodia and Malaysia. For every animated film that is launched, Legend Cinemas conducts a special screening for needy youngsters from the children’s homes, including CCF, Cambodia Children’s Fund.
“We have mini screenings and we have media screenings which we host every Tuesday morning,” Chai said. “For Cambodia audiences, this is the first time they have seen it. We had people very excited. The kids shouting in Kung Fu Panda brought in 300 kids. Watching them watch the movie was a real experience in it self. “