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This is Thuy Nga’s biggest secret that it no longer wishes to keep: It isn’t rich.
Though the problem is worse than ever, it isn’t new. In 1999, during filming of a Paris By Night at Long Beach’s Terrace Theater, a representative of one of the national film-workers’ unions told Marie he would shut down the production mid-course—hours before a live, ticket-holding audience was set to arrive—if Thuy Nga didn’t turn the production into a union shoot. That meant paying $150,000 worth of dues on the spot. Marie, sobbing, got permission from a group of singers to withhold their salaries to pay the union. The crisis was averted, but just barely: At Thuy Nga, there’s never much money in the bank. “They needed the cash right away,” Marie remembers. “It was like a nightmare.”
The budget problems in the years since then have manifested themselves less dramatically but more worryingly to To and her staff. It takes between $800,000 and $1 million to put on a Paris By Night show in 2010, and that amount is only set to rise with escalating union dues and costlier technology: HD cameras, elaborate lighting rigs, complicated set pieces. To had planned to start shooting in 3D soon.
Each production is bankrolled with the profits from the last—both in live ticket sales and, more significantly, sales of the DVDs. And therein lies the problem: The DVD sales from each edition have fallen steadily during the past two years, To says. Where the company once sold upward of 65,000 recordings of a show, it’s lately been moving little more than 55,000.
The suspected culprit? Piracy.
Like the rest of the entertainment industry worldwide, the Internet has cut sharply into Thuy Nga’s operations. A few minutes on Google can deliver a link to a full, downloadable copy of nearly any Paris By Night production. And that copy can then be burned to DVD and sold for far less than the official price tag of $25. So while the show is well-known to millions of Vietnamese around the world, very few have purchased a DVD in recent years—especially in Vietnam, where it’s not legal to sell the official product.
“In Little Saigon, knockoffs are pretty rare,” says Hao-Nhien Vu, editor of Nguoi Viet Daily News, the largest-circulation Vietnamese-language newspaper in the U.S. “But if you go to other states, knockoffs are a lot more openly available. When it comes to buying Paris By Night in Vietnam, almost all copies are pirated. We’re talking probably hundreds of thousands of copies in Vietnam.”
Le remembers visiting Australia for a production and seeing that, among the huge population of Thuy Nga-loving Vietnamese there (“Nguyen” is the seventh-most-popular surname in Australia), hardly anyone had original copies of Paris By Night DVDs. Everything was a forgery, sold on the street for $2.99 apiece. To, who was there with Le, was distraught. She still has the pictures she took of the stores filled with bootlegs. “If I go home and cry every time I see that, I couldn’t live my life,” she says.
The prospect for stemming the flow of piracy through use of the law is dim. Lawyer fees are high, and so are the jurisdictional problems of trying to clamp down on crooks both online and in foreign countries. A year ago, Thuy Nga removed all the unauthorized clips of their products that had been posted to YouTube. But that might be the best that they can do. “Sometimes, you spend a lot of money to stop one, and another one comes up,” says Huynh, who co-produces with To.
And so Thuy Nga’s bind is classic. Revenues have fallen as viewers have cut back their buying during the recession, while costs have only risen. The company has tried to cut corners wherever it can—speeding up production schedules and scrapping the pretaping performance—but To is absolutely opposed to cutting back in any way that will make a difference onstage. Nguyen Cao Ky Duyen remembers asking her why she wouldn’t reduce expenses to survive. “Our next competitor is so far behind that you don’t need to outrun them by that much,” Nguyen had said. To wasn’t having it. Paris By Night, she said, is the best; if it’s not the best, it’s not Paris By Night.
“If Paris By Night folds, I’d rather do something else,” To told Nguyen. “I’d rather open a restaurant than open a cheaper product.”
* * *
For To, going back to a simpler life certainly would bring a kind of symmetry. She was 11 years old when her family left Vietnam for Paris as one of the hundreds of thousands of refugees after the North’s triumph over the South in the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, her father had been a music producer; in France, he was a gas-station attendant. But he saved the money from the tip jar at the station until he had enough to approach a local video-production company about his idea for a film, inspired by French cabaret but created with the intention of entertaining and connecting Vietnamese abroad. And so was born the first edition of Paris By Night.
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