Film industry

Lights, camera, action: the state of the Khmer film industry reviewed

Young people are the most important demographic supporting the movie industry these days. They enjoy spending time watching movies that aim to relieve boredom by providing pure entertainment, rather than watching morality tales.

As an example, a new film titled Life Crisis Covid-19 by Cambodian director and actor Huy Yaleng is facing a loss of over $80,000.

The film has been in theaters for several weeks but failed to draw the viewership of its debut, Deumbey Kon (For the Child) and raked in 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 put the film online for people to share freely. All he asks is that people pay what they think is fair, he said.

“This movie cost $80,000 to produce but only made $6,000 theatrically. In order to find an audience for my film and raise enough money to continue making films, I had to post it online and ask for donations,” he said.

“I feel like the audience didn’t react well to the title, because they didn’t want to remember the painful experience of the Covid-19 pandemic. In fact, my film is not faithful in the original title, and to make it more clear, I renamed it. Now they can see it online and, if they like it, make a generous donation,” he added.

The reasons for moviegoer volatility – and not just in Cambodia – are that young fans tend to follow global trends. Currently, they favor horror and comedy films above all else. These genres are at the top of the box office in almost every country in the world.

Experts from the Department of Film, along with Cambodian filmmakers, producers and theater owners, analyzed the reasons for changes in the Cambodian film industry in the 21st century, examining the propensity of fans and the quality of film production.

Pok Borak, Director of the Department of Film and Cultural Dissemination at the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, said, “We can divide the Kingdom’s film industry into two eras of the new millennium. The first phase, until 2010, included single-screen cinemas, such as Cinema Lux and Vimean Tep. There were many more, but they are almost all closed now. From 2010, the emphasis changed. Modern complexes have more screens and more functions. A modern cinema hall often has five to ten screening rooms, depending on the shopping center in which it is located.

Most of the screens are in cinema complexes in malls like Aeon Mall I and II and Sorya Shopping Mall. There are still a few single-screen boutique cinemas in the capital, such as those at the French Institute, Java Creative Cafe and Factory Phnom Penh.

“The government has authorized the full reopening of all cinemas by mid-2022. There are a total of 120 observation rooms in the country, some of which can accommodate up to 60 people. Most modern cinemas are located in Phnom Penh, although some are open in Siem Reap, Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces,” Borak said.

He also reflected on the audience tastes of Cambodian youth, who are by far the largest demographic group that regularly attend theaters.

“As far as I know, young people seem more interested in escapism than serious movies that encourage them to think about serious issues. I believe it’s a global trend,” he said.

Yim Linhof, General Manager of Prime Cineplex Cinema, also spoke about 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). Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, the company operated two additional branches, one in the Sovanna Mall and one in the gated community Borey Vimean Phnom Penh, but both were closed during the pandemic.

“At the time of the Covid-19 outbreak, Prime Cineplex was only able to sell 50% of its tickets due to the Ministry of Health policy of maintaining social distancing in cinemas. In a 60-seat cinema, we could only sell 30,” he said.

Following the reopening of the country, viewership has returned to pre-pandemic levels, with cinemas selling out steadily.

“Most moviegoers are high school students or people in their 20s or 30s. They all love horror and comedy movies. Ghost stories are definitely more popular than drama movies. Almost all American or Thai horror movies translated into Khmer are very popular. Horror films and Khmer comedies are moderately popular, but Khmer dramas have lost their appeal,” he added.

Leak Lyda, Director of LD Picture Production, said, “After the reopening, the audience has increased and productions are back on track. Khmer films always seem less popular in cinemas than foreign films, especially those that have been translated into our national language.

“Some of our neighboring countries not only have a culture and civilization similar to ours, but also translate or dub their films into Khmer. When they are shown in our cinemas, it is very difficult for us to compete with them. If action is not taken, we will not be able to achieve their popularity or their higher production budgets,” he said.

“A good strategy for film production companies would be to be flexible and produce high-quality films that match current audience preferences. An online streaming service, like a movie app, would also be a good thing to The popularity of watching movies on the big screen and online actually complement each other,” Lyda concluded.

Borak, meanwhile, acknowledged that production budgets – and the resulting quality of film production – 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 produced by the United States, because everyone already knows how good Hollywood films are. He suggested that the best decision for Khmer filmmakers was to write screenplays that appealed to audiences they understood better than anyone else – the compatriots.

Bun Channimol, CEO and Founder of Sastra Co Ltd, shared how her business not only survived but thrived during the pandemic.

“Obviously, we never relied on movie ticket revenue. This means that we have activated a backup plan and found as many alternative markets as possible. We have cooperated with several TV stations and set up online service. We have also changed the format of the content we produce, which means we have produced short films and episodic series suitable for streaming and television,” she said.

“Before the Covid-19 crisis – early 2021 – we developed a movie app platform that would allow people to watch our products anywhere, so the pandemic hasn’t changed our market share,” she added.

Prime Cineplex’s Linhof had his own suggestions for Khmer filmmakers.

“The reason why Khmer films, both horror and drama, are less popular than their foreign counterparts is due to a number of factors. I think sometimes the scripts are badly written, with a language that is too simple and not creative enough. Sometimes the quality level of the production also lets them down, whether it’s due to poor shooting techniques or a weak cast,” he said.

“In my opinion, local productions have to take into account their audience and what they want. Good scripts should be able to make an audience cry or cry with laughter,” he added.