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Lights, camera, action: State of Khmer film industry reviewed

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Huy Yaleng (centre in white T-Shirt) during the May premiere of his film. HUY YALENG VIA FB

Lights, camera, action: State of Khmer film industry reviewed

Nowadays, young people are the most significant demographic that supports the movie business. They enjoy spending time watching movies that focus on alleviating boredom by providing pure entertainment, rather than watching morality tales.

As a case in point, a new film titled Life Crisis Covid-19 by Cambodian director and actor Huy Yaleng is facing a loss of more than $80,000.

The film has been in cinemas for several weeks but has not attracted anywhere near the number of viewers of his first, Deumbey Kon (For the Child) and has collected just over $6,000 at the box office. Producer Yaleng was forced to change the title from “Life Crisis Covid-19” to “Online War” and has posted the film online for people to share freely. All he is asking is that people pay whatever they feel is fair, he said.

“This film cost $80,000 to produce but has generated just $6,000 in theatres. In order to find an audience for my film, and to raise enough money to continue making movies, I had to post it online and ask for donations,” he said.

“I feel that audiences did not respond well to the title, because they did not want to remember the painful experience of the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, my film is not true to the original title, and to make that clearer, I have re-titled it. Now they can view it online and, if they enjoy it, make a generous donation,” he added.

Reasons for the volatility of moviegoers – and not just in Cambodia – are that younger fans tend to follow global trends. Currently, they favour horror and comedy movies above all others. These genres sit atop the box office in almost every country around the world.

Experts from the Film Department, as well as Cambodian filmmakers, producers and cinema owners, analysed the reasons for the changes in the Cambodian film industry in the 21st century, by examining the propensity of supporters and the quality of film production.

Pok Borak, director of the Cinema and Cultural Diffusion Department at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said: “We can divide the Kingdom’s cinema industry into two eras of the new millennium. The first phase, until 2010, featured single screen cinemas, like the Lux cinema and Vimean Tep. There were many more, but they are nearly all closed now. From 2010, the focus shifted. Modern complexes have more screens and more functions. A modern movie theatre often has from five to 10 screening rooms, depending on the mall it is located in.”

Most screens can be found in cinema complexes in malls like Aeon Mall I and II, and Sorya Shopping Mall. There are still some single screen boutique cinemas in the capital, such as the ones at the French Institute, Java Creative Cafe and the Factory Phnom Penh.

“The government allowed all cinemas to fully reopen by mid-2022. There are a total of 120 viewing rooms in the country, with some seating up to 60 guests. Most modern cinemas are located in Phnom Penh, although some are open in the provinces of Siem Reap, Battambang and Banteay Meanchey,” said Borak.

He also reflected on the viewing tastes of the youth of Cambodia, who are by far the largest demographic who regularly attend theatres.

“As far as I can tell, young people seem to be more interested in escapism than in serious films which encourage them to think about serious issues. I believe this is a global trend,” he said.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Most screens can be found in cinema complexes in malls like Aeon Mall I and II, and Sorya Shopping Mall Hong Menea

Yim Linhof, general manager of Prime Cineplex Cinema, also discussed the changing nature of the industry. Prime Cineplex has two cinemas, with one branch in Tuol Kork district and the other in Choam Chao (TL Mall Choam Chao). Before the Covid-19 crisis, the company ran an additional two branches, one in Sovanna Shopping Mall and one in the Borey Vimean Phnom Penh gated community, but the two were shuttered during the pandemic.

“At the time of the Covid-19 outbreak, Prime Cineplex was only able to sell 50 per cent of its tickets due to the Ministry of Health’s policy of maintaining social distancing in theatres. In a cinema with 60 seats, we could only sell 30,” he said.

Following the reopening of the country, the number of viewers has returned to pre-pandemic levels, with cinemas regularly selling out.

“Most moviegoers are high school students or people in their 20s and 30s. They all enjoy horror and comedy movies. Stories with ghosts are certainly more popular than dramatic films. Almost all American or Thai horror movies translated into Khmer are very popular. Khmer horror movies and comedies are moderately popular, but Khmer dramas have lost their appeal,” he added.

Leak Lyda, director of LD Picture Production, said: “After the reopening, audiences have grown and productions are underway again. Khmer movies still seem to be less popular in cinemas than foreign movies, especially those that have been translated into our national language.”

“Some of our neighbouring countries not only have a culture and civilisation similar to us, but also translate or dub their films into Khmer. When they are screened in our cinemas, it is very hard for us to compete with them. If measures are not taken, we won’t be able to achieve their popularity or their superior production budgets,” he said.

“A good strategy for film production companies would be to be flexible and produce high-quality movies that are in line with current audience preferences. An online streaming service, such as a film app, would also be a good move going forward. The popularity of watching films on the big screen and online actually complement one another,” Lyda concluded.

Borak, meanwhile, acknowledged that production budgets – and the subsequent production quality of films – were still limited in the Kingdom, as in most countries in the region.

He agreed that Thai cinema was influential, although he would not compare Thai products to the level of quality that was being produced by the US, because everyone already knows how good Hollywood movies are. He suggested that the best move for Khmer filmmakers was to write scripts that appealed to the audience they understood better than anyone – compatriots.

Bun Channimol, CEO and founder of Sastra Co Ltd, spoke about how her company not only survived but thrived during the pandemic.

“Obviously, we never counted on revenue from cinema tickets. This meant we activated a back-up plan and found as many alternative markets as possible. We cooperated with several television stations and established an online service. We also changed the format of the content we produce, meaning we produced short films and episodic series which suited streaming and television broadcasts,” she said.

“Before the Covid-19 crisis – in early 2021 – we developed a film app platform that would allow people to watch our products anywhere, so the pandemic didn’t alter our share of the market much at all,” she added.

Linhof of Prime Cineplex had his own suggestions for Khmer filmmakers.

“The reason why Khmer movies, both horrors and dramas, are less popular than their foreign equivalent is due to a number of factors. I think sometimes the scripts are poorly written, with language that is too straight forward and not creative enough. Occasionally, the level of production quality lets them down as well, whether through poor shooting techniques or weak casting,” he said.

“In my opinion, local productions should consider their audiences and what they want. Good scripts should be able to reduce an audience to tears, or have them crying with laughter,” he added.

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