Cambodia's rebooted cinema scene is due to this movie buff

Cambodia's rebooted cinema scene is due to this movie buff

Michael Chai in his office at Westec Media Limited.

When it comes to cinemas and the movie scene in Cambodia they are almost all somehow connected to the same movie buff. Just ask around amongst the industry folk and you would find that the name Michael Chai is instantly recognisable.

After all, it was this Malaysian entrepreneur who packed up everything, including his family, to relocate to Cambodia and start the country's first fully-digital cinema, Legend Cinemas City Mall, and also establish the movie distribution company, Westec Media Limited; the latter which operates more like a movie super-agent that handles quite a number of international distributors and their movies which are screened in the country.

To expand his movie reach and for movie merchandises to be sold in the country, Chai also established the retail arm, Jaikon. Similar to the Japanese word, Otaku, Jaikon in Khmer relates to being a major movie buff.

Chai who is a huge Anime and "Star Wars" fan, finds the time to not only balance his 60-men-strong workforce at Westec, but also dabbles in his other passion; food! Bringing over popular F&B franchises from his home in Malaysia under the other company he co-founded, Brands Management Limited; he manages the marketing aspects for myBurgerLab, Boat Noodles, and the Taiwanese beverage brand, Chatime for the Cambodian market.

So how did he make that initial leap of faith to start from scratch in the fast developing country? Cinema Online talks to him at his office in Cambodia.

The CEO of Cinema Online Marcel Lariche (left) with Chai.

How did digital cinemas first come to Cambodia?
The cinema scene died out during the Khmer Rouge. There were about 30 standalone cinemas during its heyday which is much bigger the Malaysian scene back then. But only four years ago, in July 2011, we opened the first digital cinema with the movie "Transformers: Dark of the Moon".

It started like this, I was working with a lot of the major studios in Malaysia via my security checks agency with my business partner. We did hand phone collections during movie screenings, helped on collateral checks for trailers and posters. Being involved with the cinema industry, when I came to Cambodia, I realised that there were no cinemas. When I asked around, I found that it was because they couldn't get content. So firstly, I contacted the movie distribution company United International Pictures back in Malaysia to ask if they were willing to provide content for the Cambodian market. Because it was one of the first companies I worked with the most, they agreed and the distribution company Westec Media Limited (WML) was started.

The first fully-digital cinema in Cambodia, Legend Cinemas City Mall.

Inside one of the halls at Legend Cinemas City Mall.

The second challenge was that my local partners and I didn't know how to build a cinema. We didn't know what was involved, but because of all those years exploring different cinemas and the projection room, and spending a lot of time with the cinema managers in KL, we learnt as much as we could watching concession, ticketing people at work and writing down procedures from scratch. So there was a big learning curve. We almost bought film projectors! But then I think we got really lucky when we decided on digital projectors, as eventually film was phasing out. So basically for Cambodia, from day one it was purely digital to begin with.

The Westec Media Limited office at Phnom Penh.

Which started first, Westec or Legend Cinemas?
Both. Simultaneously. Cambodia needed a distribution company before it could have content to be played at the cinemas. Initially, Legend Cinemas was owned by Westec, but over the year I sold my shares for Legend as it's difficult to be on both sides as there is an inherent conflict on whose interest should I focus on. With my departure, Legend Cinemas is now locally owned and is 100 per cent Cambodian.

So when did the other cinemas come in?
Platinum Cineplex had plans to open in 2011 as well. But Legend opened slightly ahead. Platinum then tried to buy content, but they had trouble acquiring the content, so when we started out with Westec we supported them as well.

When Aeon Mall was developed, then that's when Major Cineplex came into the scene too. Now we have quite a few big guns looking at Cambodia like Golden Screen Cinemas (GSC) from Malaysia and CGV from South Korea too.

How do you feel about GSC and CGV eventually stepping into the Cambodia scene?
Part of our job as a distributor is to help the country get more screens. Westec has a policy where we treat all cinemas here equally. We're trying to encourage more exhibitors to come into the city to open up their businesses. And we're non-exclusive, so we'll help anybody to open up here. We want the Cambodia movie scene to grow.

What kind of movies do well in Cambodia?
Horror-comedy. A good film can perform on a Hollywood blockbuster level and can make around USD200k to USD300k at the box office. But some Hollywood movies do well here too. "Fast 7" performed quite well and it is the all-time highest grossing movie in the country. The Thai movie "I Fine. Thank You. Love You..." did better than "Avengers: The Age of Ultron".

One of Cambodia's locally produced movies distributed by Westec, "Hanuman".

We heard that Westec is also involved in local productions. Is this true?
Yes, we have dabbled with a zombie movie, "Run" directed by King Dom and the more recent "Hanuman". The first one was actually under a program to develop new talent in the country while the second one is an action film by Italian filmmaker Jimmy Henderson.

There is new action martial arts movie that we are planning on now. We've engaged a Cambodian-French guy who had worked on the Hollywood film "Lucy", but we are still developing the concept. It will be 80 per cent of fight scenes. The story revolves around a group of five cops who are fighting off a herd of a hundred people. We're going to be shooting in August and we target to have it out at the cinemas by April of next year.

Do you have any bigger plans for the local Khmer productions that Westec is involved with?
We're planning on joining the Hong Kong FILMART next year with some Khmer titles. The plan is to bring new Khmer content to the event every year so that money comes into the Cambodian industry.

What are your other business ventures?
I'm not really active with my other ventures as my partners really do take care of them well. I just help out a little with the marketing. All of my business ventures are all co-owned. Brands Management Limited (BML) handle the F&B business; myBurgerLab, Chatime and Thai Boat Noodles.

Under Westec we have Jaikon the movie retail division which handles merchandise and video on demand.

The myBurgerLab outlet in Cambodia.

When there is a Legend Cinemas, there is also Chatime nearby.

Are there many challenges faced as a distributor in Cambodia?
It's always a challenge. We're actually the smallest guys in the whole region. We're not a multi-million corporation, but what we do is we take care of our studios. We try to grow the industry the best we can, be transparent and be honest and we also try our best to suit the studio's needs. We don't aim to just be a movie distributor, we want to be a franchise manager and that's what we're currently doing. In Cambodia, the whole culture and fandom created by movies like "Star Wars","James Bond" and Marvel was never introduced properly here, so we have to start from scratch to build the awareness among the people of Cambodia and also the fan following for them to sustain these franchises in the future.

What are Westec's big plans for this year?
"Star Wars" was never shown here when it was released in 1977 as it was released during the Khmer Rouge. A lot of other Hollywood movies never got released too. We're planning to have a super-fan launch here to screen all of the "Star Wars" movies from Episode 1 to 6 before "Episode 7" is released later this year. We're trying to activate the fan club, getting people to register, getting the costumes and all that. It has to be more than come November - just slap on some posters, trailers and hope for the best - the reason why we're investing in something huge like this is because there are nine movies altogether, with two more on the way and not to mention, the spin-offs. So we need to really commit to it.