Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Back to Phnom Penh * Bogus, baby, bogus!

Hi--

Got back to Cambodia from the US earlier this month, and now we're starting to hit
our stride with a new fundraising effort, coming on the heels of receiving 501 (c) (3) fiscal sponsorship from the Media Alliance in Oakland, CA...not that the fundraising environment is that good these days ;)

Anyway, it was refreshing to be back in the US, actually, with a decent level of optimism due to the new Obama administration; was also nice to attend an participate in a world class, "A" level fest, the Florida Film Fest with our movie, "Vuth Learns to Rock", featuring Jun from Zeppelin Rock Cafe.

If you haven’t seen it yet, go see Jun over at Zep cafĂ©, we’re selling compilation discs for $4 a pop…the split is as follows: Jun $1, Me $1, Vuth $1, Studio (Camerado) $1.

Anyway, being in a pro exhibition environment for a while makes it all the more evident how problematic some outfits here in Cambodia are when it comes to screening movies without the copyright holder/s/filmmaker’s permission.


Along these lines, Metahouse proprietor Nico Mesterharm and staffer Lydia Parusol here in Phnom Penh continue to flaunt copyright and IP, routinely screening movies without securing permissions from the filmmakers or copyright holders.
Same thing so I hear with the Top Cat cinema in Sihanoukville who does it even more openly, charging money at the door for their "snagged" films.

“But they got good aircon!”


Anyway, not all movies shown at Metahouse are screened without the filmmaker/copyright holder's permission, but a number of them each month are, usually bigger profile movies or major docs sprinkled in amongst Metahouse’s otherwise legitimate selections.


I'd once asked Nico about this peculiar habit of his--he being a filmmaker and all who should probably know (and act) more diligently:


"I don't care", he said.

Nice one...guess that sums it up.


But when I spoke to the producers of "Taxi to the Dark Side" while I
was stateside (“Taxi” being a movie that had been screened recently at Metahouse) the staffer there explained that they do care, that she at least had no knowledge of a screening of their movie back in Phnom Penh.

She also said that the filmmakers and production company rely upon revenue from screening fees to recoup their production costs and to (~gasp~) make a living.

She indicated that they would make some effort to make an
adjustment for venues who could not afford a standard rental fee--**if those exhibitors would just bother to ask**

Too bad: it's doubtful the bigger movie distributors will take Cambodia
seriously as a territory until folks are more diligent about this...which in turn inhibits a strong film culture and film industry from being established here.

I’m also astonished at how otherwise decent, smart, and sophisticated folks in Cambodia tend to regard movies as a freebie, as a free sort of public service rendered by the producers of a movie for the benefit of anyone who wants to screen it.

These same folks understand that you have to pay for a dinner at Malis…but you have to pay to rent a movie for a public screening? It’s an alien concept.


In summary: when you see a movie at a legitimate cinema or art house, the proprietors of those venues have secured the permission to show those movies. This either means they 1) pay a rental fee to the producers in order to screen the movie for a number of showings or days, or 2) they have requested permission to screen for free, based on the fact that they’re an educational institution or non-profit, what have you.


By the way, while we’re at it, here’s how to have that big screen experience you crave, without screwing over the filmmaker or producers, and without giving Cambodia a bad rap in terms of its IP practices:


1) Find friends (if available)


2) Get projector, movie, movie-screen or white bed sheet


3) Find rooftop, big open space or equivalent


4) Watch movie


5) Avoid charging admission or selling concessions as a for-profit business. Drink beer, coffee, smoke, eat, etc, but don’t advertise and then sell concessions as a business strategy during your screening, because then you’re leeching off the copyright holder. Instead, have a BBQ where everyone brings something, etc.


6) Don’t list your specific screening on calendars, or as a public attraction or event [the main problem comes when you list the movie as an attraction which you seek to derive financial or other benefit from screening the movie without paying for or licensing it]

In a more developed industry, you would be cannibalizing the market share for that movie title from exhibitors who rented the title legitimately.


7) Have fun! Your own casual living room style screenings are almost universally considered “home use” screenings, and these are a kick-ass way to bring the big screen to your own living room/rooftop/party/etc without screwing over the copyright holder or producer.


8) *alternately: try contacting the producer or filmmaker first, see what they say. “Taxi to The Dark Side” wanted $400 at first to exhibit at CamboFest, but when they knew we were an emerging, grass-roots fest, they said they’d consider a lower screening fee…anyway, find the producer or distributor, Google search them, email them, fax them, maybe they'll cut you a deal.


In a nutshell: 1) Producer (studio or filmmaker) makes movie 2) Exhibitor rents movie from filmmaker or studio or authorized distributor for a fee 3) Exhibitor makes money from the screening, either via ticket prices, or concessions (popcorn, candy, etc) or both.


The tickets sold at the door are usually split in favor of the producer or studio; that is, a $10 ticket for a movie in the West is usually split $8 or $9 in favor of studio, with the remainder going to the exhibitor.


Q: So how does exhibitor make money if they only get $1 or $2 per ticket?


A: Popcorn. Nachos. Ju ju bees. Hot dogs. Exhibitor gets all the money from concessions. In fact, a major movie house is essentially a glorified concession-selling machine, with the movie being used only as an attraction to draw in a crowd.

As far as I know, Bophana and French Cultural Center are both bona-fide when it comes to securing permission to screen and exhibit their films. Even CamboFest, the indie movie festival we run out here (www.cambofest.com) secures the rights to every single movie we screen.


It does take more work to get filmmaker/copyright holder permission; it adds a significant administrative burden. But you can’t run a legitimate festival or venue without securing permission, without getting the rights. If you do, maybe no one will mention it, maybe no one will actually intervene to stop you (at least out here in Cambodia, at least today)

But let’s be clear about things: if you don’t get permissions from the copyright holders, you’re not operating legitimately. Would you show a photographer’s work and sell those photos without their knowing about it? It’s absurd, no legitimate gallery would act that way.

As a corollary, to the above, it’s odd in my view that so many of the expats
who are here in Cambodia--many of whom are presumably here to further various issues including the reduction of corruption--actively attend bogus screenings without stopping to consider the impact on the movie industry and media sector here.

“But they play such great movies—they have such great cinema!”

Yea, a lot of the movies they play are strong films, and it’s true, many are presented with the filmmakers’ OK (and some even with the filmmaker attending, which is great). But why not screen all the movies legitimately? Do the footwork, send out the faxes and emails. Haggle with the producers.


If you can’t get a break, and if you can’t afford to pay the fee, then ask your supporters to help; and if that fails, well…then don’t screen the movie. No one’s got a gun to your head saying: “Screen Apocalypse Now, no matter what, right now, or you will die…”

“But this is Cambodia--”


We’re tired of that lame-ass excuse, we’re sick of it. That’s disrespectful to your host country…whether they’re developing or not, corrupt or not, they’re still the host and you are a guest, not a king or chieftan. Would you deal drugs out of your friend’s house? (Maybe you would, I don’t know…)


“But they don’t charge an admission”


They sell drinks, right? And other concessions or food? Then they’re making money off those movies. That’s where most legitimate movie houses make their money, by the way, off the concessions, not the box office.


“But I want to see movies on the big screen—there’s no where else to see movies in Phnom Penh.”


See my instructions, above, on how to set up your own big screen, IP-friendly screenings. Trade DVDs with other neighborhood rooftop/living room screenings to expand your range of available titles.


“But I can’t afford to pay lots of money to screen a movie.”


Well…if you’re trying to be a legitimate venue, and you’re printing up a calendar and advertising your movie events as an attraction, and you're getting investors or foundational support for your operation, then you have to get permission to screen those movies--or you’re not legitimate, it’s that simple.


I’m always amazed that donors with a vested interest in Cambodia actually willfully sponsor and promote venues who indulge in bogus screenings; it’s as if they’re saying: “well, we care about Cambodia, but we don’t care that much…not enough to set an example of good IP practices. And certainly not so much as to risk any of our comforts!”


Obviously, this issue is something that I feel strongly about, and I’ve taken a lot of heat for it. I just want to see as many legitimate movie screenings as possible, where everyone—including the filmmaker/copyright holder—benefits.

I don’t see why this is such an alien or even undesirable concept, even in Cambodia.
Cambodia is my home for now, and has been for nearly five years. It’s a country that took me in and offered a lot of opportunity and a lot of new perspectives.

Above all, I respect the country as my host, bad driving and all. Conversely, I dislike the hypocrisy behind these problematic aspects of movie exhibition here (call it my vise or luxury), to the point that I may risk the ire of the well-known Expat Rumor Mill by bringing these things to light.


But then again—I don’t care!


Good to be back,

J “J” R