The Guardian: Does China’s Richest Man Have a Plan to Take Over Hollywood?

  October 19, 2016   News Stories

News story originally published at TheGuardian.com

By Nigel Smith

China’s richest man Wang Jianlin didn’t mince words in a major address to Hollywood on Monday. “Hollywood, which is famous for its storytelling, apparently is not as good as it used to be in telling stories,” he said, citing the industry’s obsession with sequels and remakes.

“Those sequels might have worked before, but Chinese audiences are more sophisticated now. If you want to participate in the growing Chinese market, you must improve film quality.”

For those familiar with Wang, the chairman of the Dalian Wanda Group, a sprawling real estate company attempting to transform itself into a global entertainment brand, the forceful tone didn’t come as a surprise.

Since acquiring AMC Entertainment, the second-largest cinema chain in the US, for $2.6bn in 2012, Wang, who is worth an estimated $32.5bn and has ties to the communist Chinese government, has been aggressively staking his claim on the industry. So far, he’s snapped up Europe’s biggest cinema group, Odeon and UCI, purchased US production house Legendary Entertainment (the company behind the Dark Knight trilogy and Jurassic World), and has boasted that he intends to soon buy one of the six major US studios. Currently, Wang is said to in preliminary talks to purchase Dick Clark Productions, producer of the Golden Globe Awards, American Music Awards and Billboard Music Awards.

Following introductions from Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti (he referred to Wang his “friend”), Wang launched into his company’s plans to offer a 40% production rebate for foreign and local films and television shows at his massive new film studio in eastern China (expected to cost $8.2bn and open in 2017). “This metropolis will actually increase opportunities for Hollywood,” Wang said. “This is an opportunity for Hollywood, not competition for Hollywood.”

“Expanding China’s cultural influence and cultural soft power around the world is a goal of the party,” says Michael Forsythe, a Hong Kong-based New York Times journalist who has spent years investigating the billionaire’s business dealings. “I don’t think anybody would dispute that. And he is certainly doing that. It’s pretty clear that is what he is doing.”Wang’s takeover of Hollywood, however, has attracted a fair share of scrutiny from US lawmakers concerned that Wang is providing the Chinese government a platform to promote Communist ideologies.

Forsythe claims Wang, who has been a member of the Communist party since 1976, had been quick to react to a meeting of top party leaders in October 2011, at which the focus was on ways to boost the country’s cultural soft power overseas. Just a few months later Wang closed the deal to buy AMC Entertainment.

Last month, 16 US congressmen signed a letter to encourage greater scrutiny of Chinese investment in American industry, citing Wanda’s investments in AMC and Legendary Entertainment. In the letter, John Culberson, the chairman of the House subcommittee on commerce, justice, science and related agencies, asks assistant attorney general John Carlin to consider changes to the Foreign Agents Registration Act that would allow US authorities to monitor Wanda’s acquisitions more closely–citing Wang’s close relationship with the Chinese government and Communist party. The affiliation “has profound implications for American media”, the letter reads.

Not everyone is buying into the fear stoked by the backlash to Wang’s move into Hollywood. Adam Minter, who serves as an Asia-based columnist at Bloomberg View, argues that Wang has no “business case” in exporting Communist dogma to Hollywood.

The letter and editorial arrived months after Richard Berman, a lawyer and public relations executive, launched a campaign called China Owns Us, that paid for a billboard on in the heart of Hollywood that reads: “China’s Red Puppet: AMC Theaters”. The group’s “underlying concern,” per their mission statement, “is that China’s investments in the United States coincide with the promotion of pro-China propaganda at America’s expense”.

“Unless you can give me a business case for why Wanda would do this, it just seems to me bringing propaganda to the US that doesn’t sell in China is about as good a business model as bringing spoiled food to the US that wouldn’t sell in China,” says Minter. “Chinese people aren’t interested in it–and neither are Americans.”

To prove his point, Minter points to The Mermaid, China’s biggest ever film. The blockbuster is a wholly original comic fantasy with no propagandistic undertones. And although Beginning of a Great Revival: The Founding of a Party, a retelling of how China’s first Communists banded together to change a country humiliated by foreign powers, performed well in China in 2011–reports allege that cinemas had been ordered to secretly inflate their sales, ensuring the propagandist epic was a hit.

Stanley Rosen, a USC political science professor and China expert, agrees, noting that if Wang were to attempt to “put overt communist ideology” in US films, “Americans would react negatively”. “That would hurt the studios,” he says. “If Wang were to own another major studio, he’s smart enough to know that economics is important, and so he’s not going to damage his brand.”

A more valid concern argues Bill Bishop, publisher of the Sinocism China newsletter, is the self-censorship cropping up in Hollywood products to appease China’s notoriously strict censor board. It’s a view even shared by Wang, who told CNN that any change to Hollywood content was a result of US studios adding local elements to court the Chinese film market–and not the other way around.

Films, ranging from Transformers: Age of Extinction to Oscar-winner Gravity, have all pandered to China, or featured huge amounts of Chinese product placement. In 2011, Hollywood studio MGM went so far as to change the Chinese villains into North Korean ones in its Red Dawn remake. This year, Marvel is rumored to have changed the ethnicity of a Tibetan character in forthcoming superhero epic Doctor Strange, by casting British actor Tilda Swinton in the part of the Ancient One, to avoid upsetting China.

Studios appear willing to go to extraordinary lengths to keep local authorities happy and avoid the damaging withdrawal of a Chinese theatrical release date in a country that only allows 34 international films to screen in cinemas each year.

“It’s subtle and insidious,” Bishop says of the popular trend. “Whats getting taken out of movies [to appease China], what actors aren’t being given roles? There are so many changes being made to movies.”

Look at the case of Warcraft, Legendary’s $160m blockbuster based on the popular video game, that made only $47.2m in US during its entire theatrical run, but racked up a whopping $156m in its first five days in China. The reason: China is estimated to be home to about half of the world’s World of Warcraft players, making interest among Chinese gamers a given. Its China tally set a record for the biggest disparity between domestic and foreign receipts, leading to industry rumors that a planned sequel might forego a US release altogether, to just open in China.

“If you want to profit from what is destined to become the [world’s] largest film market, you will have to understand the Chinese audience,” Wang stressed to Hollywood in his closing remarks. “Some politicians in the US are demanding for films to be ‘politically independent’, but such a view is against the common sense of business. That is why my point is that ‘business is business’. We better not make it political.”

The China effect in five blockbusters

Now You See Me 2 (2016)

The franchise’s new director Jon M Chu cast Taiwanese star Jay Chou (who’s largely unknown in the US) in the sequel, and filmed a significant portion of the film in the Chinese region of Macau. Chu told Vulture these decisions weren’t on his part a “conscious effort” to appeal to Chinese audiences, but admitted Lionsgate was no doubt pleased by his choices. Tellingly, the magic caper scored a record opening day in China for the studio.

Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

Michael Bay’s sequel, made in conjunction with China’s official state broadcaster, and a company that specializes in deals between Hollywood studios and Chinese investors, not only features rampant product placement (the Hollywood Reporter described the film as “the shopping channel for the new middle class, and the rich, in China”)–it also goes to great pains to depict the Chinese government as benevolent. Members of US government agencies are meanwhile portrayed as indecisive and corrupt.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

The Chinese cut of the Marvel blockbuster ran four minutes longer to include a positive propaganda spin for Gu Li Duo, a popular “milk drink” brand that prior to Iron Man 3’s arrival had come under fire after batches were found to contain mercury. Iron Man’s nemesis in the film, The Mandarin, was changed from a Chinese-born villain to a man of mysterious origin played by British actor Ben Kingsley.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)

Chinese star Li Bingbing was added to the ensemble to cater to her large fanbase, while half an hour of action took place in Hong Kong. A Chinese boyband also makes an extended cameo.

World War Z (2013)

The writers of the zombie apocalypse epic changed the origin of the virus from China in Max Brooks’s book to Russia in the Brad Pitt-led film.

Additional reporting by Tom Phillips

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