Small Firm Persists Against Big Odds in Fading Film Industry

When Matthew Robinson found­ed Khmer Mekong Films in 2006, he thought he could make a profitable business out of making feature films in Cambodia.

But after losing nearly $40,000 on his company’s first film, “Staying Single When,” which showed at the now-defunct Kirirom cinema in March and April 2007, he was forced to think again.

“Originally, it was a mistake to make cinema films, but I miscalculated. I thought we could survive solely on that,” he said in a recent interview.

Robinson attributes the underwhelming success of his film to the fact that cinema ticket prices were set high, at $1.75, and while he was confident the romantic comedy genre would appeal to the market, he admitted later that it probably “wasn’t a ‘must-see’” film.

Regardless of the film’s quality, it was going up against a dwindling cinema industry in Cambodia.

Several landmark theaters have closed recently, and the number of films produced in Cambodia more than halved last year. According to the Culture Ministry, 28 films were produced in Cam­bodia in 2007, compared to the 61 produced in 2006.

To strengthen themselves against the odds, Robinson and his small but growing staff began taking on a steady flow of contract work—ranging from TV spots about microfinance to full-blown documentaries on the Khmer Rouge tribunal for the British embassy—that has kept them busy over the past two years and gained them a solid reputation.

“We have to survive on the work we do,” he said, adding that while it hasn’t yet made back its startup capital of $30,000, KMF covers its full monthly costs, pays salaries to a staff of 14—of which Robinson is the only foreigner—and has plans to expand its offices near the riverside in Phnom Penh.

KMF doesn’t get every job it puts in for—usually because it charges slightly more than competing companies, Robinson said—but they continue attracting top-notch clients such as the BBC, Al Jazeera and MTV Thai­land and Europe, as well as NGOs and government agencies.

KMF grew out of the production team led by Robinson and trained by the BBC in 2003 to create Taste of Life, a 100-episode TV drama about HIV/AIDS, which was widely popular in 2004 to 2006.

CTN will be airing a series of KMF’s dramas and documentaries every Sunday at 1 pm, starting June 1. As of Wednesday, 29 KMF videos on the YouTube Web site had drawn nearly 45,000 hits.

“It’s just growing and growing…. We need to get established, then we can make popular films,” Robinson said.

And now they are ready to test the waters again. On June 7, KMF begins shooting its second-ever feature film, a suspense whodunit thriller called “Heart Talk,” revolving around a group of young women who work at a radio station, the fictional Heart FM.

“There’s very little blood, but you’ll jump every five minutes,” Robinson said, adding that they are aiming to screen it around Pchum Ben in late September.

Preparations are going well for the film, which is budgeted at $35,000, and Robinson said Wednesday that they were reaching the end of auditions and had nearly a full cast.

Robinson is confident “Heart Talk” will hit the market’s sweet spot and keep lines queuing around the block, but he also said making money isn’t the sole aim of the company.

A solid foundation of young, talented filmmakers who consistently turn around high quality products—that’s the main goal, he said.

Big things are down the line for Cambodian cinema, but it’s first things first.

“We want to be well-positioned,” he said. “In the next 20 years, it’s going to go crazy…. Movies are a sort of fantasy world, isn’t it? This is the reality.”

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