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Since then, budget problems have manifested themselves less dramatically but more worryingly to To and her staff. It now takes $800,000 to $1 million to put on a Paris by Night show, 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: DVD sales from each edition have fallen steadily during the past two years, To says. Where the company once sold upward of 65,000 units, 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 short online search can deliver a link to a full, downloadable copy of nearly any Paris by Night production, which can then be burned to DVD and sold for far less than the official $25 price tag. So while the show is well known to millions of Vietnamese around the world, very few of them have purchased a DVD in recent years — especially in Vietnam, where it is illegal to sell the official product.
"In Little Saigon [in Orange County], 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.
Peter (who didn't want his last name used) is the owner of the Tan-Sanh Gift-Shop, a space in San Francisco's Little Saigon that is full of decorative paraphernalia, figurines, and a collection of DVDs that covers an entire wall. Among those DVDs are original copies of Paris by Night — but, according to Peter, they are being sold less and less. He suspects three businesses in the neighborhood are making money out of copying and selling the pirated versions.
Whereas his store charges $25 for an original copy in a shrinkwrapped, colorful DVD case, the pirates hand out plain discs in paper inserts for the considerably lower price of $5 or $6. Peter adds: "We have to pay taxes and they don't."
He worries that rampant piracy will inevitably force Thuy Nga to shut down. And if Thuy Nga discontinues the series, he will lose a lot of business.
Another San Francisco store owner has made attempts to deter piracy. Preferring to go by the pseudonym Tuyet, she has worked closely with To to create pamphlets encouraging people to buy the original, which have been passed out in the neighborhood.
She is concerned that the quality of Paris by Night will soon be compromised by plummeting sales. But she's also worried that the show's character has already been modified by the inclusion of modern music and efforts to appeal to younger audiences.
Like Peter's business, her shop — which she and her husband have owned for 20 years — has experienced setbacks since piracy proliferated in the neighborhood. When Paris by Night first came out, they sold more than 100 copies of each one; now they sell only 20 to 30.
The prospect for stemming the flow of piracy with the law is dim. Peter says that he reached out to the San Francisco Police Department several times, but decided to "stop a long time ago" after realizing that they could do nothing.
Lawyer fees are high, and so are the jurisdictional problems of trying to clamp down on crooks online and overseas. A year ago, Thuy Nga removed all the unauthorized clips of its products that had been posted to YouTube. But that might be the best the company can do. "Sometimes, you spend a lot of money to stop one, and another one comes up," Huynh says.
And so Thuy Nga's bind is classic. Revenues have fallen as viewers have cut back on spending during the recession, while costs have only risen. The company has tried to cut corners — 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," Ky Duyen 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," she told Ky Duyen. "I'd rather open a restaurant than open a cheaper product."