Go big or go home could be Wang Jianlin's motto when it comes to movie theaters. The Chinese billionaire is now the world's largest operator of cinema screens, but just as another of his acquisitions awaits antitrust approval, consumer preferences are shifting to online.
To bolster its iTunes business, Apple Inc. is pressing Hollywood studios for faster access to new releases, while 21st Century Fox Inc. and Comcast Corp.'s Universal Pictures are looking to cut the time from a movie's exclusive showing in theaters to when it's available online or on DVD from about three months to as little as two weeks.
Less time in theaters means a narrower window through which to lure filmgoers and get them spending on other high-margin items, like popcorn and soft drinks. That's bad news for Wang's Dalian Wanda Group Co.
Through AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., Wanda has expanded to Australia, where it owns Hoyts, and Europe, where it just closed a $1.2 billion deal to buy Britain's Odeon & UCI Cinemas Group Ltd. AMC's acquisition of Carmike Cinemas Inc., which would create the largest American cinema chain, still needs Department of Justice sign off, but already, legislators are expressing concern about China taking over U.S. cultural trophies.
Wang's theater business in China isn't much rosier. Asia's largest economy is still recovering from a box-office slump and ticket sales growth is the slowest since 2008. Although it reported a 25 percent increase in box-office revenue for the first 11 months of the year, Wang's Beijing-based Wanda Cinema Line Co. is struggling to win over investors, with its stock down 46 percent since January.
It could be argued that having a near-monopoly on the world's theaters should help AMC with ticket pricing. Wanda is also adding features such as reserved seating, reclining chairs and in-seat dining to lure consumers who would have otherwise waited to watch a film at home instead. However, those refurbishments cost money, on top of Wang's multibillion-dollar buying sprees.
The entertainment landscape is changing, and technology is not only making it easier for people to watch a movie anytime, anywhere, but also providing a plethora of other electronic distractions. Winning against such a strong digital tide may well be Wang's greatest challenge yet.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
(An earlier version of this column was corrected to fix the description of the data in the first graphic.)
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