Shrinking U.S. Film Business Looks Good to China's Wang

Shrinking U.S. Film Business Looks Good to China's Wang
Wang Jianlin in his Beijing office
Photograph by Katharina Hesse/laif/Redux

What comes next for China’s ambitious Dalian Wanda Group, one of the country’s largest entertainment and commercial real estate companies? Fresh on the heels of its September $2.6 billion acquisition of AMC Entertainment, the Beijing-based private company plans to buy a British business early next year (more details to come on whether it will be in entertainment, hotels, or retail). And it may sign an agreement with a Hollywood studio in the first half of 2013, says 58-year-old chairman Wang Jianlin, in an interview in his expansive office at company headquarters in east Beijing.

“We are talking to big American studios and we are pretty far advanced. They have also come to China,” says Wang. China’s second-richest person, with a personal wealth of $9.1 billion, Wang is an avid collector of Chinese art who spent 17 years as a soldier in the People’s Liberation Army. “In the first half of next year we may announce a co-production or co-financing company.” And by the summer of 2016, U.S.-China joint productions will be filmed at Wanda’s planned $3 billion movie production facility in northeast China’s Dalian. Ground has already been broken and construction is under way, says Wang.

Over the next two to three years, Wanda is also likely to invest in overseas retail operations and luxury hotels (the company already has 66 Wanda Plaza malls, 57 department stores, 38 luxury hotels, and 63 karaoke outlets in China). That could include expanding the company’s Wanda brand overseas, as well as making more acquisitions in Europe and India. Wang plans to invest a further $10 billion in the U.S. and $20 billion in other overseas markets. (Half of that will come from Wanda, the remainder from external financing such as through bank loans.) The timing? “I cannot give you an exact time frame,” he says. “It takes too much time to negotiate every deal.”

More immediately, Wanda, with revenue this year expected to reach $22.2 billion, will renovate and upgrade the 4,865 screens in 338 multiplex theaters of debt-laden Kansas City (Mo.)-based AMC. Wanda has already injected the first $100 million of a planned $500 million, with the bulk going to digitalizing all of AMC’s theaters (about 60 percent are digital now, says Wang). “The most serious problem with AMC before was its heavy debt. So our strategy is to relieve its debt and increase its capital,” he says. “And we have some good news: This year AMC will make a small profit of $20 million to $30 million.”

Why the big foray into the already stagnant U.S. cinema business? Wanda already has 5,900 cinema screens in China, all of which are digital, and its Beijing office sits above a Wanda Imax theater. This year China’s box-office take will grow by 30 percent, to about $3 billion, surpassing Japan as the world’s second-largest market. That compares with roughly $10 billion in the U.S.—still by far the world’s largest market, but one that is gradually shrinking, says Duncan Clark, chairman of BDA China, a business consultancy based in Beijing.

One reason for the push overseas may be to limit Dalian Wanda’s dependence on any one market. “Any large real estate company in China would be keen to have some diversification,” says Clark. “They are subject to a lot of capricious regulation here. Sometimes investment abroad is about new growth opportunities, but it can also be about fear of new regulations at home.” He points to restrictions aimed at limiting price rises and sales for both residential and commercial real estate developments.

But just as important, buying into the U.S. may help Wanda establish global recognition, and pave the way for more film production deals involving top directors and actors. Dalian Wanda says it aims to reach $32 billion in revenue by 2015. “AMC is an established brand and that may give them street cred,” says Clark. “The entertainment business is fundamentally about momentum and that is very true in China, too. Who is on the way up, who is the biggest, and who is the brashest all determine who succeeds. It’s like the emergence of studios in the U.S. in the ’30s.”

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