The Return of Phnom Penh Cinema

The inauguration of the Kampul Pich Cinema in Chamkar Mon district earlier this month marks a renaissance for the Cambodian movie business, with officials hoping that the opening is just the ticket needed to boost a flailing local cinema industry.

But producers wonder if increased inter-theater competition will point theater owners in the direction of foreign films, bought and sold at cheaper prices than any Khmer-produced movie available.

Kampul Pich’s $100,000 renovation project makes three theaters currently open in Phnom Penh, with two more waiting in the wings. “I hope the increased cinema will encourage the Cambodian movie sector to become as famous as it was during the 1960s,” said Ministry of Culture Cinema Department Deputy Director Moung Sokhan.

Recently, lagging competition invited theater owners to arbitrarily charge high fees to producers, regardless of the quality or popularity of their work. Although producers are looking forward to a more stable rental system, they wonder if the new theaters will really make a difference.

But Moung Sokhan has made assurances that producers who make the best stories will be invited by cinemas to show their work for reasonable prices. “The price to rent a cinema will fall because of increased competition,” he said. “This is unlike before when even the best producers did not have a choice,” he said.

The Cinema Department may be concerned about the informal pricing system, but it can do little to stabilize the market. “We are in the free-market system now. The price is up to the cinema owner to define,” Moung Sokhan said.

To Royal Sound Khemarin Cinema President Pov Soeng, any more theater openings will smother his business. “When there are a lot of cinemas, the cinema owners and films producers will die, because cinemas will share the audiences,” he said. He claimed he lost 50 percent of his audience during the Kampul Pich Cinema inauguration.

Pov Soeng has not decided whether to reduce his rental costs, or even if he will establish a flat fee.

Phnom Pich Movie Production President Ung Son San does not believe that increased competition will decrease rental fees. He produced “Thon Chey,” a story adapted from Khmer literature, in two years on a $20,000 budget, but must share half his profits with cinema owners.

“Before [1983], when the cinemas belonged to the state, it cost little [to rent], but now…they still charge high because cinemas belong to private [owners],” Ung Son San said.

Ung Son San is concerned that theater owners will rely on foreign films to fill their seats, as Khmer films are more expensive to buy and sell. Khmer movies can cost theater owners as much as $20,000, while Thai films cost only $1,500, said Pov Soeng.

Tickets for Khmer films often cost more than foreign movies, due to expensive production fees. Pov Soeng charges $1 for Khmer films and 3,000 riel for foreign movies. He charges movie producers $1,000 a month to use his venue, and has no plans to invest in new films for fear of profit loss.

Ung Son San suggested that the government increase language translation taxes for foreign films to narrow the cost margin between foreign and local films.

“Some cinema owners buy foreign movies for a cheap price, so they can sell tickets below the Khmer movies so they get bigger audiences,” he said.

Movie Association President Ly Bun Yim, one of Cambodia’s celebrated film makers, is more hopeful than Ung Son San. He says he believes increased competition will incite rental fees to stabilize. If this does not occur, he will invite all cinema owners to meet and establish standard ticket and rental prices.

“They should charge the same to show the foreign and Khmer movies, so the cinema owners and film owners can share their interests,” Ly Bun Yim said. If film producers do not reduce ticket prices, he foresees a loss to both film producers and theater owners.

Debate over theater rental prices is not a new issue. In July, the Vimean Tip cinema fielded complaints from Cambodian film producers, who accused theater owners of charging unfair prices.

The Korean-owned cinema allegedly charged producers $10,000 per month to rent screen time-a fee some film makers say they could not afford. Ly Bun Yim complained the loudest, calling for the Ministry of Culture to take action against the theater.

Following the near-death blow dealt to Cambodian culture by the Khmer Rouge, other Khmer arts have made a comeback.

But the film industry has taken its time. Cambodia’s earliest films were shot by King Norodom Sihanouk. The King’s work received little foreign applause, but spurred interest in the industry, which climaxed in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Audiences are rallying for movie owners and producers to reconcile their differences for the good of the industry. Eighteen-year-old Doung Sodaly goes to the movies for a change of environment, but says 3,000 riel is too expensive for a movie ticket.

He prefers foreign films to Khmer movies because he feels that Cambodian actors deliver poor performances.

Not until today have moviegoers seen so many theater options. Unless disputes over rental and ticket prices are settled, however, audiences may be left to choose between Thai comedies and Chinese dramas.

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