Fighting pirates

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 July, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 July, 2003, 12:00am

Cinemas in Malaysia are seeing extremely long queues these days, a rare sight before crackdowns began recently on the trade in pirated video compact discs (VCD).

Before the raids by the police and officials from the Domestic Trade and Consumer Affairs Ministry, one could get a pirated and somewhat fuzzy version of a newly released movie for M$10 (HK$20). Older releases, usually with crisp and clear pictures, could be had for half that amount.

But with the relentless raids that began in earnest on May 26, almost all retailers of pirated VCD have gone into hiding, forcing scores of people to visit the cinema instead of buying cheap copies.

Film distributors are breathing a temporary sigh of relief at long last. Take Finding Nemo, for instance. Within 11 days of screening, the movie registered about US$800,000 in box office sales, far ahead of the US$525,000 it had projected for a six-week run.

A spokesman for Buena Vista Columbia Tristar Films Malaysia said the improved box office takings have been due to the effectiveness of raids in wiping out pirated VCDs. When the company screened Lilo and Stitch last year, many had already watched the film weeks before its official opening at the cinema. After six weeks of screening, the film only generated about US$395,000 in income.

One cinema in Penang decided to raise ticket prices by M$1 as a result of the upsurge in movie-going. The normal price was M$8, but the cinema felt justified in raising it since Finding Nemo was a popular movie.

Although there had been similar price increases in the past for blockbuster movies like Star Wars, the authorities said it was wrong this time around. Fahmi Kasim, an official with the consumer affairs ministry, said the price increase went against the government's efforts to stamp out VCD piracy. The cinema is now in trouble for contravening the Trade Description Act by collecting the extra sum.

It is not difficult to see why pirated VCDs are popular in Malaysia, where a trip to the cinema can set a family of four back by about M$49 including popcorn, soda and car parking compared with just M$10 for a pirated VCD - before the crackdown.

So, what is the solution? Recording and video production companies should consider dropping their prices, said Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. The authorities are tackling not just retailers, but optical disc manufacturers as well, since many seized VCDs and CDs bear their standard identification codes. This indicates licensed manufacturers may be in on the piracy game.

In the midst of all this, a strange twist has occurred. One VCD distributor has complained to the Anti-Corruption Agency that Malacca city council staff returned pirated VCDs to him after seizing his legal copies in a raid. Wong Kok Shang said officials seized 680 VCDs, bearing valid certificates from the National Film Corporation, from his shop. His employees were inserting the certificates into the VCD casings when his shop was raided. Many officials are now red-faced.