WSJ: Wanda Chairman Wang Courts Hollywood With Praise and Prescriptions
News story originally published at WSJ.com
By Erich Schwartzel
China’s richest man had a message for Hollywood on Monday: We’re here to stay, so learn to play ball with us.
In a speech Monday evening, Wang Jianlin, chairman of Dalian Wanda Group Co., told several hundred American and Chinese audience members that growth in the Chinese box office means the market will inevitably become the world’s biggest, making it imperative for filmmakers to understand how to appeal to the nation’s moviegoers.
His bullish outlook told of a global economy where Chinese consumers are calling the shots. Mr. Wang predicted that by 2026, the Chinese box office will gross more than $30 billion annually—representing about 45% of the world-wide total. The U.S. currently has 40,000 movie-theater screens; China will have about 150,000 in 10 years, he predicted.
Mr. Wang had a few prescriptions for Hollywood companies—some of which he has been steadily acquiring—that want to survive in that new reality. Partner with Chinese firms for help navigating the market, for starters, and “increase the Chinese element” of movies to attract viewers in his country, he said.
“If you want to make a little money…You have to find ways to please the Chinese audience,” he said, speaking in a packed auditorium at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Mr. Wang’s footprint in Hollywood has expanded rapidly in the past year, thanks to the $3.5 billion acquisition of “Pacific Rim” producer Legendary Entertainment in January and pending deals to take over Dick Clark Productions and Carmike Cinemas Inc., which would make Wanda the largest exhibitor in North America. It is already the largest exhibitor in the world, and wants to control 20% of the world’s box office by 2020, Wanda executives said. Mr. Wang has also indicated he wants to own a major Hollywood studio eventually.
Lawmakers have begun scrutinizing his appetite, with some members of Congress calling on the Justice Department and Government Accountability Office to review such takeovers for any first-amendment encroachment. Mr. Wang and his company have close ties to China’s government and Communist Party.
Mr. Wang told the crowd on Monday that profit, not propaganda, was his main pursuit. “There is no political point of view,” he said. “I am a businessman.”
Monday’s event was among the first looks that many in Hollywood have gotten of Mr. Wang. In a speech delivered without notes or teleprompter, Mr. Wang alternated between praising Hollywood, saying the Chinese are “students” of the industry, and offering his advice.
“Go back into storytelling!” he said in one impassioned section of his speech, calling out studios that have leaned on big-budget, special effects-laden franchises and the numerous sequels and reboots that follow. (The remark was somewhat jarring, given that those kinds of movies, along with comic-book adaptations, have been known to do massive business in China.)
Mr. Wang’s roadshow in Hollywood this week hopes to lure U.S. productions to his Qingdao Movie Metropolis, a 400-acre production facility that will include at least 30 sound stages by October 2017. The Movie Metropolis is the glitziest element of a larger Wanda-owned development in Qingdao, featuring hotels, villas, malls and theme parks. If Mr. Wang can succeed in attracting A-list talent to Qingdao, he can use its sheen to sell his other holdings across the city.
Wanda is sweetening the pot to get those first productions into its sound stages. The company and the city of Qingdao say they have allocated $750 million worth of production incentives over five years, offering 40% cash rebates on some expenditures for qualifying productions.
The 40% rebate is generous compared with other programs, though not as high as some countries, and its annual cap of $150 million limits the number of productions that can qualify. Wanda-owned Legendary Entertainment will film the next installments of “Pacific Rim” and “Godzilla” at the Movie Metropolis. Several other companies announced plans to film there at a signing ceremony that closed Monday’s event in L.A.
It is hard to outgun Hollywood in bombast, but Wanda gave its best shot with the evening. A red carpet bearing the Wanda logo greeted guests, and Mr. Wang’s presentation was punctuated with soaring recordings of theme songs from classics like “Star Wars” and “Rocky.” Women wearing floor-length evening gowns handed out portable radios so attendees could listen to a simultaneous translation of Mr. Wang’s speech.
The company’s progress in making inroads with Hollywood institutions was also noted. Thanks to a $20 million donation to a film museum being built by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the movie history wing of the museum will be called the Wanda Gallery, said Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs.