BANGKOK — U.S. film studio 20th Century Fox
has announced its first official release in Burma since it withdrew from the country in the 1960s. Fox is one of the most recent American companies to re-engage with Burma after sanctions were loosened. What does it all mean for Burma’s cinema-goers and its local film industry?
Fox studios opening in Burma
The movie-going experience is the latest in a long list of things that are changing in Rangoon.
20th Century Fox has authorized the first official release of one of its films, Titanic 3D, to Mingalar Company, Burma's largest private film exhibitor that controls 80 percent of the domestic market with eight cinemas.
Fox withdrew from Burma after the coup in 1962, says 20th Century Fox International's senior vice president Sunder Kimatrai.
In the intervening years, copies of Hollywood films were frequently smuggled into the country from Thailand, and shown in theaters, including those owned by Mingalar. Kimatrai says the company is hoping to reverse that trend.
"We have an interest in protecting our intellectual property, it is after all our most valuable asset. As we do anywhere else, we do whatever we can to enforce our property rights," said Kimatrai. "And certainly in time that is something we would want to consider doing in Burma. Unauthorized screenings on the internet or in cinemas are a problem that we face around the world. In that regard Burma is no exception."
Fox has recently entered a number of frontier markets like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Papua New Guinea. Kimatrai says the recent relaxation of sanctions made it seem that it was a good time to take advantage of the changes in Burma. Tickets will be selling for up to $3.50 (3,000 kyat), which is six times as much as a regular ticket price, but Kimatrai says he believes crowds are willing to pay for the higher quality projections.
Mingalar Company has also recently invested upwards of $300,000 on new digital projection equipment, which Kimatrai says makes it easier to control the security of copyrighted materials.
Updating old projection equipment in Burma's cinemas could have a significant impact on the industry. William Bowling of the Asian Film Commission Network says Burma once had the most robust film industry in the region but local films crews have been technologically left behind.
"They're very thirsty and hungry for education and to build an industry now. They see themselves as coming out of the dark ages there and they need a lot of help. There are certainly people there interested in doing it. What are relatively low budget films really, and the paradox is they could have much more production value for their films if they would go over to digital format, but they haven't really done it," Bowling added.
In the past, Burma produced more than 100 films per year. Currently, the average budget for a Burmese film is around $100,000 and is completed within a few weeks or even days. Bowling says that the quality of the films is improving, as evidenced by the highly anticipated project currently underway, a biopic about General Aung San.
In downtown Rangoon still stands cinema row, the country’s densest concentration of stand-alone theaters, some dating back to the 1920s. But Philip Jablon, who writes a blog about cinemas in Southeast Asia, says those distinctive theaters are now threatened by modern multiplexes in the country’s new shopping malls.
"We're losing street culture. Throughout the 20th century this is how people have generally spent their leisure time. And they're at the street level where they were in communities that people can access not like in Bangkok for instance where everything is now dominated by multiplexes in shopping malls," Jablon stated.
Jablon says in their heyday, the theaters in downtown Rangoon were world-class, and showing international films from all over the world, as well as live performances. Now, there are plans to demolish most of them.