Wang Jianlin: does China’s richest man have a plan to take over Hollywood?


The Chinese real estate billionaire is storming into the film industry, but his ties to the Communist party have some suspecting a bid for cultural influence

Chinas richest man, Wang Jianlin, didnt 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 industrys 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.

To 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 didnt 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, hes snapped up Europes biggest cinema group, Odeon and UCI, purchased the US production house Legendary Entertainment (the company behind the Dark Knight trilogy and Jurassic World), and 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 Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, and the Los Angeles mayor, Eric Garcetti (he referred to Wang his friend), Wang launched into his companys plans to offer a 40% production rebate for foreign and local films and television shows at his huge 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.

Wangs takeover of Hollywood, however, has attracted a fair share of scrutiny from US lawmakers concerned that he is providing the Chinese government a platform to promote communist ideologies.

Expanding Chinas 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 billionaires business dealings. I dont think anybody would dispute that. And he is certainly doing that. Its pretty clear that is what he is doing.

Forsythe claims Wang, who has been a member of the Communist party since 1976, was quick to react to a meeting of top party leaders in October 2011, which focused on ways to boost the countrys 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 Wandas 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 Wandas acquisitions more closely citing Wangs close relationship with the Chinese government and Communist party. The affiliation has profound implications for American media, the letter reads.

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

Not everyone is buying into the fear stoked by the backlash to Wangs 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.

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 doesnt sell in China is about as good a business model as bringing spoiled food to the US that wouldnt sell in China, says Minter. Chinese people arent interested in it and neither are Americans.

To prove his point, Minter points to The Mermaid, Chinas 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 Chinas first communists banded together to change a country humiliated by foreign powers, performed well in China in 2011, reports allege that cinemas were ordered to secretly inflate their sales, ensuring the propagandist epic was a hit.

Wang Jianlin: If you want to profit from what is destined to become the [worlds] largest film market, you will have to understand the Chinese audience. Photograph: Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

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, hes smart enough to know that economics is important, and so hes 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 Chinas notoriously strict censor board. Its 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 pandered to China, or featured huge amounts of Chinese product placement. In 2011, the 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.

Its subtle and insidious, Bishop says of the popular trend. Whats getting taken out of movies [to appease China], what actors arent being given roles? There are so many changes being made to movies.

Look at the case of Warcraft, Legendarys $160m blockbuster based on the popular video game, which 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 worlds World of Warcraft players, making interest among Chinese gamers a given. The films China tally helped 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 open only in China.

If you want to profit from what is destined to become the [worlds] 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

Transformers: Age of Extinction Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Now You See Me 2 (2016)

The franchises new director, Jon M Chu, cast the Taiwanese star Jay Chou (who is 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 werent 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 Bays sequel, made in conjunction with Chinas 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 3s arrival had come under fire after batches were found to contain mercury. Iron Mans nemesis in the film, the Mandarin, was changed from a Chinese-born villain to a man of mysterious origin played by the 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 Brookss book to Russia in the Brad Pitt-led film.

Additional reporting by Tom Phillips

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