In a glittery presentation in Los Angeles, the richest man in China, Wang Jianlin of the Dalian Wanda Group, made his pitch this week to studio heads eager for Chinese investment and audiences.
Wang, a real estate magnate and emerging movie mogul who spoke Monday in Los Angeles, is making inroads in Hollywood as he expands his business in China. His Wanda Group owns a majority stake in AMC Theatres, the second-largest U.S. chain, and in January spent $3.5 billion for Legendary Entertainment, the company behind such hits as "Godzilla," "Jurassic World," and "Pacific Rim."
Wang has partnered with Sony Pictures, made an aborted bid for a share of Paramount, is acquiring Carmike Cinemas, and is buying Dick Clark Productions, which produces the Golden Globe film and television awards.
At Monday’s presentation, Mayor Eric Garcetti welcomed Wanda’s investment in the “signature industry” of Los Angeles, a city that he notes has more Chinese investment and more Chinese visitors than any other in the country.
Link to government
Not everyone is pleased, including 16 members of Congress who last month asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office to investigate Wanda’s deals, citing “growing concerns about China’s efforts to censor topics and exert propaganda controls on American media.”
For Hollywood studios, China’s clout as an investor and its growing audience are enticing. China is expected to become the world’s box office leader by 2018, and Wang said it will have as many as 150,000 movie screens by 2026, nearly four times those now in the United States.
Hollywood has “cashed in,” said Stanley Rosen, a political scientist at the University of Southern California and an expert in the Chinese film industry.
Wanda Group is privately held, but CEO Wang has close ties to government and Rosen says he is balancing the sensibilities of Chinese viewers with the concerns of China’s authorities. He says there is a price to pay for Hollywood studios, making sure “films that have a China mention will have a very positive one, nothing negative about China ... They’re cashing in on the opportunities and they're selling out in a way that doesn't embarrass them too much.”
There was no talk of selling out as Wang announced production rebates of up to 40 percent at his Qingdao film production facility. The $8 billion complex will eventually have 30 sound stages and a theme park.
Joint financing and better access to Chinese audiences are attractive to Hollywood, where Rosen says the concept of selling out is foreign. “Hollywood is always about the bottom line,” he said. “It’s about the box office.”
For Chinese-born activist Ann Lau of the Visual Artists Guild, which advocates for freedom in the arts, the expansion of films with ties to China’s government is a recipe for disaster. She says sensitive topics are being avoided or whitewashed, such as Mao Zedong’s failed scheme to collectivize farms in the so-called Great Leap Forward, which contributed to tens of millions of deaths from famine in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Big companies in China are subject to control by the government, said Lau, whether private or not. That’s partly true, said Rosen, who says there is nevertheless a big difference between Wang’s Wanda Group or Jack Ma’s Alibaba, the Chinese internet giant, and a state-owned company.
While Wang wants help with marketing and technology, he had some complaints on Monday about Hollywood’s reliance on special effects, and he urged more storytelling. Ironically, CGI (computer-generated imagery) blockbusters are popular in China, including this year’s fantasy "Warcraft" from Wanda’s newly acquired Legendary Entertainment.
Ann Lau worries about what stories will be told, or not told, as China’s influence grows in Hollywood.
'Leave it to the Chinese'
Rosen says that films are being used to project China’s “soft power” to both Chinese and overseas audiences, and while Hollywood is unlikely to promote China’s territorial claims or wade into policy debates, small changes in a film’s dialogue can boost China’s image.
He says the disaster action film "2012," a blockbuster in China, shows the Chinese building giant arks to save the human race, and actor Oliver Platt says, “Leave it to the Chinese; I didn’t think it was possible, not in the time we had.”
Rosen says it’s a balancing act for Hollywood, which hopes to produce films that appeal to American viewers as well as Chinese and international audiences. Wanda’s upcoming projects through Legendary Entertainment include sequels to "Pacific Rim" and "Godzilla," both to be filmed at its Qingdao complex in eastern China, and the soon-to-be released China-themed film "The Great Wall" from director Zhang Yimou, starring Matt Damon and Jing Tian, and also filmed in Qingdao.