‘Star Wars’ Passes ‘Beauty and the Beast’ as Top 2017 Earner

On the last day of the calendar year, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” has surpassed “Beauty and the Beast” as the top grossing film in North America in 2017. It also topped the charts for the weekend for the third time, but just barely – Dwayne Johnson’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” is close on its tail.

According to studio estimates on Sunday, “The Last Jedi” will add $52.4 million over the weekend bringing its domestic total to $517.1 million. “Beauty and the Beast,” also a Disney release, netted out with $504 million for the year.

With the weekend’s earnings, “The Last Jedi” will also cross the $1 billion mark globally – even before it opens in China on Jan. 5.

But “Star Wars” is facing some hefty competition still, from the likes of The Rock, Jack Black and Kevin Hart, whose “Jumanji” sequel took in $50.6 million in its second weekend in theaters to take second place. The Columbia Pictures film has earned a stunning $169.8 million to date and could even reach $300 million domestically by the end of its run.

The acapella franchise “Pitch Perfect 3” took third place in weekend two, with $17.8 million, bringing its total to $64.3 million – still less than what “Pitch Perfect 2” earned on its opening weekend alone in May 2015 ($69.2 million).

Another musical, “The Greatest Showman,” with Hugh Jackman as P.T. Barnum, came in fourth place with $15.3 million after adding 310 screens. The animated kids film “Ferdinand” took fifth with $11.7 million.

In its first weekend in theaters after debuting on Christmas Day, Ridley Scott’s “All the Money in the World” took in $5.5 million, bringing its total to $12.6 million. The film got some added recognition when Scott replaced Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer and reshot portions of the film only 6 weeks before it was set to hit theaters. But the hype of the impressive feat hasn’t translated into big earnings.

Another adult-targeted film, Alexander Payne’s “Downsizing,” is struggling in theaters, taking in $4.6 million in its second weekend in theaters. The Matt Damon-starrer has earned only $17.1 million to date against a $68 million production budget.

In limited release, Aaron Sorkin’s “Molly’s Game,” starring Jessica Chastain, earned $2.33 million. The film about the “poker princess” Molly Bloom expands on Jan. 5. And Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Phantom Thread” earned $220,000 from four theaters over the weekend after its Christmas opening. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis as a designer, “Phantom Thread” has grossed $531,000 to date.

“As end of year marketplaces go, this is a great time to be a moviegoer,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst for comScore. “There are so many movies out there, the only trick is how do you see all of them.”

The year as a whole will surpass $11 billion again, with comScore projecting $11.12 billion, which is down 2.3 percent from last year’s record-breaking grosses ($11.4 billion), and almost on par with 2015’s $11.14 billion.

“We actually had a really great end of year surge,” Dergarabedian said. “‘Star Wars’ adding about a half billion dollars didn’t hurt. But ‘Star Wars’ didn’t do this alone. It’s not just about the big movies at the top, it’s also about the smaller movies that provided a really great foundation. Every dollar counts.”

Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to comScore. Where available, the latest international numbers for Friday through Sunday are also included. Final domestic figures will be released Tuesday.

1.”Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” $52.4 million ($68 million international).

2.”Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” $50.6 million ($67 million international).

3.”Pitch Perfect 3,” $17.8 million ($13.1 million international).

4.”The Greatest Showman,” $15.3 million ($28.5 million international).

5.”Ferdinand,” $11.7 million ($23.1 million international).

6.”Coco,” $6.6 million ($21.4 million international).

7.”All the Money in the World,” $5.5 million ($1.4 million international).

8.”Darkest Hour,” $5.3 million.

9.”Downsizing,” $4.6 million ($1.4 million international).

10.”Father Figures,” $3.7 million.


Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at international theaters (excluding the U.S. and Canada), according to comScore:

  1. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” $68 million.

  2. “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” $67 million.

  3. “Ex-File 3 (Quan Ren 3),” $41.1 million.

  4. “Goldbuster (Yao Ling Ling),” $38.4 million.

  5. “Youth,” $28 million.

  6. “Hanson and the Beast,” $25.5 million.

  7. “Ferdinand,” $23.1 million.

  8. “Namiya,” $21.4 million.

  9. “Coco,” $21.4 million.

  10. “Along with the Gods: The Two Worlds,” $20.1 million.


Universal and Focus are owned by NBC Universal, a unit of Comcast Corp.; Sony, Columbia, Sony Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Classics are units of Sony Corp.; Paramount is owned by Viacom Inc.; Disney, Pixar and Marvel are owned by The Walt Disney Co.; Miramax is owned by Filmyard Holdings LLC; 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight are owned by 21st Century Fox; Warner Bros. and New Line are units of Time Warner Inc.; MGM is owned by a group of former creditors including Highland Capital, Anchorage Advisors and Carl Icahn; Lionsgate is owned by Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.; IFC is owned by AMC Networks Inc.; Rogue is owned by Relativity Media LLC.

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Mistrust Remains Two Years After Poisoned Water Crisis

Two years after a state of emergency was declared in Flint, Michigan because of lead-poisoned water, residents have been assured their water is now safe. But residents are wary even though these assurances come from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. VOA’s Anush Avetisyan visited Flint and spoke to residents who face a battle for clean water every day.

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Library of Congress Will No Longer Collect Every Tweet Created

The U.S. Library of Congress says it will no longer collect every single tweet published on Twitter as it has been doing for the past 12 years. 

The library said this week that it can no longer collect everything across the entire social media platform because of recent changes Twitter has made, including allowing longer tweets, photos and videos. 

It said in a blog post this week that its first objective with collecting and archiving tweets was “to document the emergence of online social media for future generations.” The library says it has fulfilled that objective and no longer needs to be a “comprehensive” collector of tweets. 

The Library of Congress said it will still collect and archive tweets in the future, but will do so on a more selective basis. It said going forward “the tweets collected and archived will be thematic and event-based, including events such as elections, or themes of ongoing national interest, e.g. public policy.”

The library said it generally does not collect media comprehensively, but said it made an exception for public tweets when the social media platform was first developed. 

The library said it will keep its previous archive of tweets from 2006-2017 to help people understand the rise of social media and to offer insight into the public mood during that time. “Throughout its history, the Library has seized opportunities to collect snapshots of unique moments in human history and preserve them for future generations,” it said.

“The Twitter Archive may prove to be one of this generation’s most significant legacies to future generations. Future generations will learn much about this rich period in our history, the information flows, and social and political forces that help define the current generation,” it said.

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A 19th-century Arcade Game Is Hot in 21st Century

It’s not an Olympic sport, at least not yet, but pinball has a growing body of top-level athletes, and a growing number of international competitions. Faith Lapidus reports.

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Using Simple Electric Currents to Clean Dirty Water

The World Health Organization estimates more than 800,000 people around the world die every year because of unsafe drinking water. But researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology may have figured out a simple and inexpensive way to clean the world’s dirtiest water. VOA’s Kevin Enochs reports.

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Disasters Pounded North America in 2017 but Were Down Globally

North America couldn’t catch a break in 2017. Parts of the United States were on fire, underwater or lashed by hurricane winds. Mexico shook with back-to-back earthquakes. The Caribbean got hit with a string of hurricanes.

The rest of the world, however, fared better. Preliminary research shows there were fewer disasters and deaths this year than on average, but economic damages were much higher.

While overall disasters were down, they smacked big cities, which were more vulnerable because of increased development, said economist and geophysicist Chuck Watson of the consulting firm Enki Research.

In a year where U.S. and Caribbean hurricanes caused a record $215 billion worth of damage, according to insurance giant Munich Re, no one in the continental U.S. died from storm surge, which traditionally is the No. 1 killer during hurricanes. Forecasters gave residents plenty of advance warning during a season where storms set records for strength and duration.

“It’s certainly one of the worst hurricane seasons we’ve had,” National Weather Service Director Louis Uccellini said.

The globe typically averages about 325 disasters a year, but this year’s total through November was fewer than 250, according to the Center for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters at the University of Louvain in Belgium. They included flooding and monsoons in South Asia, landslides in Africa, a hurricane in Ireland, and cyclones in Australia and Central America. Colombia experienced two different bouts of floods and mudslides.

Lower tolls

Disasters kill about 30,000 people and affect about 215 million people a year. This year’s estimated toll was lower — about 6,000 people killed and 75 million affected.

Was it a statistical quirk or the result of better preparedness? Experts aren’t certain, but say perhaps it’s a little bit of each.

“This has been a particularly quiet year,” said Debarati Guha-Sapir, who heads the disaster research center. “The thing is not to be … complacent about this.”

But quiet depends on where you live.

The U.S. had gone more than a decade without a Category 3 storm or larger making landfall on the mainland. The last few Septembers — normally peak hurricane month — had been particularly quiet, but this year, Harvey, Irma, Jose and later Maria popped up and grew to super strength in no time, said Colorado State University hurricane researcher Phil Klotzbach.

“September was just bonkers. It was just one after the other. You couldn’t catch a break,” he said.

There were six major Atlantic hurricanes this year; the average is 2.7. A pair of recent studies found fingerprints of man-made global warming were all over the torrential rains from Harvey that flooded Houston.

Researchers at the University of South Carolina estimated that economic damage from this year’s disasters, adjusted for inflation, were more than 40 percent higher than normal, mostly because of Harvey, Irma and Maria. By many private measures, Harvey overtook Katrina as the costliest U.S. hurricane, but the weather service hasn’t finished its calculations yet.

Much of the hurricane-related damage and deaths in the Caribbean — from storm surge and other causes — is still unknown. The National Hurricane Center hasn’t finished tallying its data.

Uccellini of the weather service said warmer than normal waters and unusual steering currents made the hurricanes especially damaging, combined with booming development in disaster-prone areas. 

“We are building in the wrong places. We are building in areas that are increasing in risks,” said Susan Cutter, director of the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.

​Devastating wildfires

Wildfires blazed nearly year-round in the U.S., fanned by relentless winds and parched conditions. About 9.8 million acres of land have burned, mostly in the West, nearly 50 percent more than the average in the past decade. A wildfire that ignited in early December in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties northwest of Los Angeles grew to be the largest in California history.

Scientists connect drier weather after heavy rains — leading to buildup of fuel that can catch fire and burn easily — to a combination of man-made warming and a natural La Nina, the climate phenomenon that’s the flip side of El Nino, said Georgia Tech climate scientist Kim Cobb.

Worldwide, drought affected significantly less land and fewer people this year, and heat waves were less severe compared with those in the past.

Landslides were more frequent and deadlier this year, mostly because of the Sierra Leone landslide that killed 915 people, Guha-Sapir said.

Earthquakes worldwide were dramatically down. As of mid-December, there had been only seven earthquakes of magnitude 7 or larger compared with about 15 in a normal year. Two powerful quakes struck Mexico in September, including one that hit on the anniversary of the devastating 1985 Mexico City quake.

The back-to-back Mexico quakes were unrelated, said geophysicist Ross Stein of Temblor Inc., a company that provides information about seismic risk. 

“We have to remember that coincidences really do happen,” he said. 

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Annual NYC Taxi Driver Calendar Is Out: Meet Mr. December!

Readying for his first television interview, Alex Wang gazes at his reflection in the back window of his yellow cab. Wiping his windswept mane behind the ear, he adjusts his red Shanghai Tang jacket and takes a swig of steaming tea.

“Ahh,” he pauses emphatically, “warms your whole body.”

Wang opens the front door and reaches deep inside, revealing a glossy 2018 calendar. On the cover is a shirtless male model, sprawled on his belly atop a yellow taxicab trunk, licking a spiral rainbow-colored lollipop the size of his face.

“It’s me!” he laughs, self-deprecatingly, pointing to his photo. “So ugly, you are!”

The 68-year-old Wang, an 18-year taxicab veteran, self-proclaimed “karaoke king” and “bit of a comedian” from China, flips through the months, each featuring a New York taxi driver. Most are foreign-born, representing seven different countries, and many are middle-aged, reflecting the key demographics of the city’s yellow cab fleet: 96 percent immigrant, median age 46.

 

WATCH: Is It Hot in Here, or Is It New York’s 2018 Taxicab Models?

 

The NYC Taxi Drivers Calendar’s co-creators, Philip and Shannon Kirkman, came up with the idea five years ago as a tongue-in-cheek alternative to the famous chisel-chested firefighter pin-up — a steamy parody with the dual-function of celebrating the city’s diversity, while also giving back.

To date, the couple has donated more than $60,000 worth of proceeds to University Settlement, a nonprofit that serves immigrant and low-income families with education, housing, and health services.

​Turning taxi drivers into models

Shannon, the calendar’s photographer, describes the end product’s humor as uniting.

“Particularly when the news is tough, it’s something that you can kind of take a step back, and relax and celebrate with,” Shannon said. “We laugh a lot during the shoots.”

Philip, the calendar’s creative director, explains that the process of turning a taxi driver into a model, during a two-hour shoot, can prove challenging.

“I always think about how courageous it is for these drivers, because it is an open set,” Philip said. “We literally park the cab in front of a fire hydrant in most cases, and there’s people walking by and looking and taking pictures.”

Among the fearless models are pucker-lipped Dan — who sports a bow-tie, cuffs, and not much else before a vintage late 60s-era checker taxicab — and Hassan, who seductively watches you as he eats a messy slice of birthday cake decorated with his own smiling portrait.

Of the year’s 12 participants, only one is a woman, indicative of a male-dominated industry in which 99 percent of New York City yellow cab drivers are men.

Bangladeshi-native Nipa, featured in both the inside cover and October, is the third woman ever to be included in the calendar. Her depiction as a strongwoman was intentional.

“It’s been a tough year for women,” Shannon said. “We felt like we really wanted to put Nipa in a position of power, in a position of strength.”

​‘A little’ fame

Come winter, cover model Wang can be seen enthusiastically squirting a bottle of baby oil across the hood of his vehicle, in his official December photo.

Wang, who started his life in the U.S. as a restaurant deliveryman 37 years ago, says being a taxi driver has been the most rewarding job and career for him.

“Every [time a] passenger comes in … I practice my English,” Wang says. “I see lots of beautiful places, lots of landmarks of New York.”

Everywhere he drives, Wang proudly displays his roots, but there is no place he would rather call home. And now that he has found “a little” fame, he plans to make sure everyone knows about it.

“I will show all the passengers,” he says. “I was in a taxi calendar, and [I was] the cover man. Alex Wang!”

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Is It Hot in Here, or Is It New York’s 2018 Taxicab Models?

The New York City Taxi Drivers Calendar began as a tongue-in-cheek alternative to the famous chisel-chested firefighter pin-up, while benefiting a nonprofit that serves immigrant and low-income families. Now in its fifth year, the creators of the parody calendar are out with their 2018 edition, and it may be their sauciest one yet. Ramon Taylor reports.

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Beatles’ Ringo Starr Knighted in UK Honors List

Ex-Beatles drummer Ringo Starr has been knighted in Queen Elizabeth’s New Year’s honors list, along with Bee Gees singer Barry Gibb and author Michael Morpurgo, while ballet dancer Darcey Bussell becomes a dame.

Ringo, 77, real name Richard Starkey, joined the Beatles as a replacement drummer for Pete Best in 1962 and occasionally sang lead vocals, notably in “Yellow Submarine” and “With a Little Help from my Friends.”

He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a Beatle in 1988 and again in 2015 for his solo career after the group split up.

Gibb, 71, is the British musician who co-founded the Bee Gees with his brothers Robin and Maurice, and went on to record a string of pop classics including “Stayin’ Alive” and “Night Fever” from the film Saturday Night Fever.

English author Morpurgo, 74, is best known for children’s novels like War Horse and was Children’s Laureate from 2003 to 2005.

Bussell, 48, is a former principal dancer with the Royal Ballet and currently one of the four judges in the long-running BBC TV ballroom contest Strictly Come Dancing.

The New Year’s honors have been awarded since Queen Victoria’s reign in the 19th century and aim to recognize not just well-known figures but those who have contributed to national life through often selfless and unsung contributions over many years.

In that category, Margaret Jamieson, of the Blue Door charity shop on the Scottish island of Orkney, is recognized, along with Geoffrey Evans, a local councilor in Falmouth, Cornwall, for over 40 years.

Actor Hugh Laurie receives the CBE medal, as does author Jilly Cooper and the former editor of British Vogue magazine Alexandra Shulman.

England women’s cricket captain Heather Knight is made an OBE while hip hop artist Richard Cowie, aka Wiley, is made an MBE, along with Paralympian athlete Stefanie Reid.

The biannual honors list is released on the Queen’s official birthday in June and at the end of each year.

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Trump Dismisses Last of His HIV/AIDS Advisory Council

The Trump administration has fired the remaining members of the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV/AIDS, also known as PACHA.

Council members received a letter this week saying that their appointments to the panel were terminated, “effective immediately,” according to a report in The Washington Post.

PACHA was established in 1995, during the Clinton administration, to advise the White House on HIV strategies and policies.

Six of the members of the council, upset by White House actions on health policy, resigned in June. Scott Schoettes, a lawyer with Lambda Legal, a LGBT rights organization, was one of them.

He wrote in Newsweek at the time that U.S. President Donald Trump “simply does not care” about people living with HIV. Schoettes said the Trump administration “pushes legislation that will harm people living with HIV and halt or reverse important gains made in the fight against this disease.”

He told The Washington Post Friday, “The tipping point for me was the president’s approach to the Affordable Care Act,” which he said “is of great importance for people living with HIV like myself.”

Schoettes said in Newsweek that much of the public is unaware that “only about 40 percent of people living with HIV in the United States are able to access the life-saving medications that have been available for more than 20 years. It is not acceptable for the U.S. president to be unaware of these realities, to setup a government that deprioritizes fighting the epidemic and its causes or to implement policies and support legislation that will reverse the gains made in recent years.”

B. Kaye Hayes, PACHA’s executive director, said in a statement that the dismissals were part of the White House’s effort to “bring in new voices.”

Dr. David Kilmnick, CEO of the New York LGBT Network, saw the move differently. The firing of the council members “is another outlandish and despicable move by the Trump administration in his year-long effort to erase the LGBT community and the issues that disproportionately affect us,” he said in a statement Friday.

“From ending protections against bullying for trans youth in our schools to his attempt to ban the transgender community from the military to no mention of Gay Pride month during June to leaving out the LGBT community on World AIDS Day to banning words such as transgender, diversity and other, this president has been nothing but a complete train wreck that is a danger to the safety and lives of all Americans,” Kilmnick continued.

A notice on the Federal Register says the Department of Health and Human Services is seeking nominations for new council members. Nominations must be submitted by Tuesday.

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The Biggest Consumer Electronics Show Opens in Two Weeks

January is almost here, and the world is bracing for the unofficial opening of this year’s race for the hearts, minds and pockets of tech enthusiasts. The international Consumer Electronics Show, CES for short, is the venue where technology manufacturers, from giants to startups, show their products, hoping they will become among the next must-haves worldwide. VOA’s George Putic looks at what may be expected.

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Wall Street Ends Strong Year on Quiet Note

There were no fireworks on Wall Street for the last trading day of the year, as U.S. stocks closed out their best year since 2013 on a down note, with losses in technology and financial stocks keeping equities in negative territory for the session.

Major indexes hit a series of record highs in 2017, lifted by a combination of strong economic growth, solid corporate earnings, low interest rates and hopes for a tax cut from U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

The benchmark S&P 500 surged 19.5 percent this year, the blue-chip Dow 25.2 percent and Nasdaq 28.2 percent, as each of the major Wall Street indexes scored the best yearly performance since 2013.

The market has also remained resilient in the face of tensions in North Korea and political turmoil in Washington. The S&P 500 only saw four sessions all year with a decline of more than 1 percent while the CBOE Volatility index topped out at 15.96 on a closing basis, well below its long-term average of 20.

What will 2018 bring?

“The real question is what happens as we head into 2018,” said Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at CFRA Research in New York. “There is an awful lot of optimism built into share prices right now that could set us up for disappointment.”

Among sectors, the technology index has been the best performer, up 37 percent and led by a gain of 87.6 percent in Micron Technology.

Telecom services, down 5.7 percent, and energy, down 3.7 percent, were the only two sectors to end the year in the red.

The rally is widely expected to extend into 2018, boosted by gains from a new law that lowers the tax burden on U.S. corporations.

Last day a down day

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 118.29 points, or 0.48 percent, on Friday to close at 24,719.22, the S&P 500 lost 13.93 points, or 0.52 percent, to 2,673.61 and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 46.77 points, or 0.67 percent, to 6,903.39.

For the week, the Dow lost 0.13 percent, the S&P 500 shed 0.36 percent and the Nasdaq lost 0.81 percent.

Apple declined 1.08 percent after issuing a rare apology for slowing older iPhones with flagging batteries.

Goldman Sachs lost 0.68 percent after saying its fourth-quarter profit would take a $5 billion hit related to the new tax law.

Amazon fell 1.4 percent after Trump targeted the online retailer in a call for the country’s postal service to raise prices of shipments in order to recoup costs.

Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by a 1.46-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.91-to-1 ratio favored decliners.

The S&P 500 posted 36 new 52-week highs and no new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 81 new highs and 20 new lows.

Volume on U.S. exchanges was 4.94 billion shares, compared to the 6.4 billion average for the full session over the last 20 trading days.

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Russia Reports Virulent H5N2 Bird Flu at 660,000-bird Farm

Russia has reported an outbreak of highly pathogenic H5N2 bird flu on a farm in the central region of Kostromskaya Oblast that led to the deaths of more than 660,000 birds, the Paris-based World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) said Friday.

The virus killed more than 44,000 birds in an outbreak first detected on December 17, the OIE said, citing a report from the Russian Ministry of Agriculture.

The rest of the 663,500 birds on the farm were slaughtered, it said in the report. It did not specify the type of birds that were infected.

It is the first outbreak of the H5N2 strain in Russia this year, but the country has been facing regular outbreaks of H5N8 since early December last year, with the last one reported to the OIE detected late November.

Bird flu has led to the deaths or culling of more than 2.6 million birds on farms between December last year and November this year, a report posted on the OIE website showed.

Neither the H5N2 or H5N8 strains has been found in humans.

The virulence of highly pathogenic bird flu viruses has prompted countries to bar poultry imports from infected countries in earlier outbreaks.

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Cambodia Filmmakers Face ‘Taxing’ Times

The launch of Angelina’s Jolie’s Khmer language feature “First They Killed My Father” promised to deliver a much needed shot of exposure and enthusiasm into the arm of Cambodia’s emergent film industry.

Instead of using the spotlight to springboard their productions though, leading Cambodian filmmakers are fearing a proposed tax enforcement drive could kill the industry entirely.

Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture called filmmakers to a meeting in October to discuss the planned imposition of taxes on filmmakers.

The clampdown echoes a broader push by the country’s General Department of Taxation to transition from an opaque and dysfunctional system of negotiated tax to a more sustainable government revenue base.

But the idea an industry struggling to stay afloat can shoulder the implementation of full tax compliance is unrealistic, said Motion Picture Association of Cambodia president Chhay Bora.

“If the taxes are to be implemented [now],risk in the film industry will occur,” he said. “I think not less than 80 percent of production houses will close down because it is a heavy burden to them.

“All the artists will lose their job,” he added. ‘The technical team will no longer be in the film industry. Perhaps it will be the same as what happened in the 2000s.”

Cambodia’s film industry experienced a brief resurgence in the early 2000s fuelled by surging nationalist tensions with Thailand but with little support or direction interest soon fell away.

About seven years into a second boom, filmmakers have now been informed of just under a dozen taxes they are obligated to pay from pre-production to screening that cover monthly production incomes, cast and crew salaries.

They are also in the firing line for taxes on equipment rental, studio rental, full time staff, revenue from screening, annual VAT and withholding tax.

Bora, the director of feature films 3.50, which delved into the deplorable world of the virginity trade, and Lost Loves, the story of a mother fighting for her family’s survival under the Khmer Rouge, believes good cinema has a critical role to play in Cambodian society .

“It has influence in promoting culture, literature, and sending other educational messages,” he said, adding the art-form also brings national prestige.

In recent years Cambodian films have garnered some notable attention on the world stage with features such as Davy Chou’s Diamond Island and Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture gracing Cannes and the Oscars.

Their success has helped inspire a new generation of filmmakers and slowly the quality of productions is lifting.

International distribution remains extremely rare though, confining most Cambodian filmmakers to a handful of theaters across the country that screen films on average just 26 times — or for about two weeks.

Filmmakers and distributors have told VOA cinemas commonly take a cut of 55 percent from these limited ticket sales.

Rampant copyright violation has made web based sales effectively pointless with most filmmakers outright refusing to do it or exhausting every other possible alternative first before risking illegal downloads.

As a result the production of serious feature films is far from a lucrative enterprise with local Cambodian attempts rarely managing to break even. Instead the filmmakers work largely for exposure.

Salaries are low and work scarce forcing freelance crew members to rely on a few jobs a year while supplementing their incomes through menial jobs, such as driving Tuk Tuks.

Huy Yaleng, 38, rode the wave of the first cinema resurgence in the early nineties at the start of his career and felt the pain of having to turn to TV execs as cinemas shut their doors, reopening as pubs and restaurants.

“The industry has just recovered in the past few years, as we all can see that we are not strong enough to make profit yet,” he said.

Huy said his latest thriller “Psychotic” had once again failed to turn a profit and vowed to throw in the towel if his upcoming feature “The Witch” brought no return again.

“I am worried. I have put my love into film for my entire life, and now it has problems,” Huy said. “I haven’t made any profit yet, but in my mind I told myself to continue because I love it and vow to serve this industry till the end. We will try until the end.”

The proposal to apply 10 percent salary tax to crew members along with taxes on other subcontractors such as those providing transportation or catering is particularly onerous, Chhay said, because their inability to pay left the burden with the production house.

Worse, such taxes would be backdated to the time each production house registered itself — leaving filmmakers struggling to break even with huge retrospective tax bills.

So he is leading the push for a 10-year tax holiday for the entire industry.

Pok Bora, Acting Director of the Film and Cultural Diffusion Department, said that request had been forwarded to higher authorities in the government but no decision had been made.

“The immediate solution by the Ministry of Economy [and Finance], is to offer a tax break until the end of 2018 for the Withholding Tax on cinema screening,” he said.

The government had also created a National Arts Support and Development Fund in June 2016 — only available to registered productions that fulfilled tax obligations.

“Therefore, there is a need to emphasize on tax reforms to make sure that the funds go to the right production,” he said.

Chea Sopheap, executive director of the Bophana Audio Visual Resource Center, said solutions to the industry’s financial woes hinged on research and clear understanding.

“So the best way is to have a good discussion, good study in order to find a balance between cinemas, film productions and the government,” he said.

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Facebook, Twitter Threatened With Sanctions in Britain

Social media giants Facebook and Twitter could face sanctions in Britain if they fail to be more forthcoming in providing details about Russian disinformation campaigns that used their platforms in the run-up to last year’s Brexit referendum, the chairman of a British parliamentary inquiry committee warned.

The companies have been given until January 18 to hand over information.

Damian Collins, chairman of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport committee in the British parliament, which is looking into Russian fake news’ efforts, criticized both companies earlier this month, accusing them of stonewalling the parliamentary investigation. But he has now warned they risk being punished and he says his committee is exploring what sanctions could be imposed on Facebook and Twitter.

“What there has to be then is some mechanism of saying: if you fail to do that, if you ignore requests to act, if you fail to police the site effectively and deal with highly problematic content, then there has to be some sort of sanction against you,” he told Britain’s Guardian newspaper.

He dubbed the lack of cooperation by the social media firms as “extraordinary.”

“They don’t believe that they have any obligation at all to initiate their own investigation into what may or may not have been happening, he said. “They’ve not done any of that work at all.”

Parliamentary committees do not have the power in their own right to impose sanctions on erring companies. But British officials have expressed interest in punishing social media companies for failing to take action to stop their platforms from being exploited by agitators, whether they are working for foreign powers or non-state actors such as the Islamic State terror group.

In September in New York at the annual general assembly meeting of the United Nations, British Prime Minister Theresa May expressed frustration with social media companies, saying they must go “further and faster” in removing extremist content and should aim to do so within two hours of it appearing on their sites.

“This is a major step in reclaiming the internet from those who would use it to do us harm,” she said.

The prime minister has repeatedly called for an end to “safe spaces” on social media for terrorists. And British ministers have called for limits to end-to-end encryption, which prevents messages from being read by third parties if they are intercepted.

British lawmakers and ministers aren’t the only ones considering ways to sanction social media firms that fail to police their sites to avoid them from being used to spread fake news or being exploited by militants. This month, Germany’s competition authority accused Facebook of violating European data protection regulations by merging information collected through WhatsApp and Instagram with Facebook user accounts.

Collins has written twice to the social media firms requesting information about suspected Russian fake news campaigns in the weeks and months before Britons voted in June 2016 on whether to retain membership in the European Union, Britain’s largest trading partner.

In a letter to Twitter, he wrote: “The information you have now shared with us is completely inadequate. … It seems odd that so far we have received more information about activities that have taken place on your platform from journalists and academics than from you.”

In response to parliamentary requests for information about Russian interference in the EU referendum, including details of accounts operated by Russian misinformation actors, the social media firms passed on copies of the details they provided to Britain’s Electoral Commission, which is probing advertising originating from Russian actors during the lead up to the Brexit vote.

Facebook said only $0.97 had been spent on Brexit-related ads seen by British viewers. Twitter claimed the only Russian spending it received was $1,000 from the Russian state-owned broadcaster RT.

Russia has been accused of meddling in recent elections in America, France and elsewhere and of running disinformation campaigns aimed at poisoning political discourse in the West and sowing discord with fake news.

In November, Prime Minister May accused Vladimir Putin’s government of trying to “undermine free societies” and “planting fake stories” to “sow discord in the West. “Russia has denied the allegations.

Three days before Christmas, Britain’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson, sparred with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, over the issue of alleged Russian meddling in the Brexit referendum.

During his trip to Moscow, the first visit by a British foreign secretary to the Russian capital for five years, Lavrov denied at a joint press conference that the Kremlin had sought to meddle, saying Johnson himself had previously said there was “no evidence of Russian interference in the Brexit referendum.” Johnson corrected Lavrov, saying: “Not successfully, is what I said.”

So far the evidence of a major Russian social media effort during the Brexit referendum remains thin, and at least not on the alleged scale seen, according to investigators, during the 2016 U.S. presidential race.

An investigation by the New York Times found that “Russian agents … disseminated inflammatory posts that reached 126 million users on Facebook, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded over 1,000 videos to Google’s YouTube service” ahead of the U.S. presidential vote.

In January 2017, the Office of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence concluded: “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.”

In October 2017, researchers at the City University of London found a “13,500-strong [Russian] Twitter bot army,” was present on the social media site around the time of the referendum.

Bot accounts post content automatically. Those accounts in the month prior to the Brexit vote posted a total of 65,000 tweets about the referendum with a slant towards the leave campaign, according to City University researchers.

But a subsequent study by the University of California, Berkeley, and Swansea University in Wales unearthed more pro-Brexit Russian bot accounts, tracking over 150,000 of them.

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Beijing May Be Starting to Win Its Battle Against Smog

Beijing may have turned a corner in its battle against the city’s notorious smog, according to Reuters calculations, and environmental consultants say the Chinese government deserves much of the credit for introducing tough anti-pollution measures.

The Chinese capital is set to record its biggest improvement in air quality in at least nine years, with a nearly 20 percent change for the better this year, based on average concentration levels of hazardous breathable particles known as PM2.5.

The dramatic change, which has occurred across North China, is partly because of favorable weather conditions in the past three months but it also shows that the government’s strong-arm tactics have had an impact.

The Reuters’ estimates show that average levels of the pollutants in the capital have fallen by about 35 percent from 2012 numbers, with nearly half the improvement this year.

“The improvement in air quality is due both to long-term efforts by the government and short-term efforts this winter,” said Anders Hove, a Beijing-based energy consultant. “After 2013, the air in summers got much cleaner, but winter had not shown much improvement. This year is the first winter improvement we’ve seen during this war on pollution.”

Government officials this week signaled they were confident they were starting to get on top of the problem.

“The autumn and winter period is the most challenging part of the air pollution campaign. However, with the intensive efforts all departments have made, we believe the challenge is being successfully overcome,” Liu Youbin, spokesman for the Ministry of Environmental Protection, told reporters Thursday.

Still a long way to go

But environmental experts say that while they are optimistic, it may be too early to celebrate.

“The turning point is here but we cannot rule out the possibility we can turn back,” said Ranping Song, developing country climate action manager for the World Resources Institute. “We need to be cautious about challenges and not relax now that there have been improvements. There are lots of issues to be solved.”

And while China has scored an initial victory over smog, it still has to reverse public opinion outside China on its air quality.

New York-based travel guidebook publisher Fodor’s advised tourists in mid-November in its “No List” for 2018 to shun Beijing until the city’s anti-pollution campaign had reduced the “overwhelming smog.” Fodor’s did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In Beijing there is certainly plenty of room for further progress as average air quality is still significantly worse than the World Health Organization’s recommendations.

And the region still sees bouts of heavy smog. On Friday afternoon, the U.S. embassy’s website said Beijing’s air was “very unhealthy” and the city issued a pollution alert Thursday.

Embassy monitoring

The Reuters calculations showing the improvement were based on average hourly readings of PM2.5 concentrations at the United States Embassy in Beijing from April 8, 2008 to Dec. 28, 2017.

The data was compiled from figures from the U.S. embassy’s air monitoring website, as well as data provided by AirVisual, a Beijing company that analyses air quality data.

The data from the embassy, though not fully verified or validated, is the only set available for PM2.5 levels in the capital over that time period. AirVisual provided the hour-by-hour air pollution data from the embassy for recent months.

PM2.5 levels are the most closely monitored because they account for the majority of air pollutants in China and can be harmful to the body when breathed.

Beijing’s air was actually worse in the first nine months of this year than in the same period last year, but PM2.5 concentrations from October to Dec. 28 this year were nearly 60 percent lower than last year, the Reuters figures show.

Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner Huang Wei said that less than half of the improvement is due to favorable weather — particularly stronger northerly winds and low humidity — with the government’s policies behind most of the change.

The Chinese government launched a winter smog “battleplan” in October for 28 northern cities that called for strict rules on emissions during the winter heating months when pollution typically worsens.

The authorities also sought to make sure that Beijing wasn’t too polluted during October’s Communist Party congress, which is only held once every five years, at which Xi Jinping consolidated his power as the nation’s leader. Some of the more-polluting businesses in and around the capital were told to shut down for a period before and during the gathering.

The plan for the winter months included switching millions of households and some industrial users to natural gas from coal for their heating and some other needs. There were also mandated cuts in steel production by up to 50 percent in some of the areas surrounding the city.

Contrast with India

Beijing’s improving air quality stands in stark contrast to India’s capital New Delhi, where pollution has steadily become worse over the past few years, and is now well above Beijing’s.

China’s improvement, and deterioration in some other countries, means China is now not among the 10 worst countries for pollution in the world anymore, according to at least one measure.

“At the national level, India tops the index rankings, followed by Bangladesh and Thailand,” said Richard Hewston, global head of environment and climate change at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, which measures 198 countries for air quality.

Beijing’s clean-air campaign hasn’t been without its challenges.

The government this year botched the switch from coal to natural gas, leading to recent widespread shortages of gas, soaring liquefied natural gas prices, leaving some residents freezing in their homes and some factories shuttered.

There is also a wider economic cost. Growth in industrial output, especially in northern China, has slowed because of the pollution crackdown, economists say, and the prices of some key commodities, from LNG to copper, have risen.

Some of those who had been benefiting from the poor air quality by selling air filtration products have been taking a hit.

“Overall demand in China is down. … Some companies have 100 million yuan [$15.35 million] in unsold inventory this year as a result of the improved air quality,” said Liam Bates, CEO of Beijing-based Kaiterra, which makes air filters and air quality monitoring products.

“We haven’t seen huge impact because we’re expanding heavily overseas. While the air in China is getting better, the air in India is much, much worse and we just opened our India office,” he said.

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