From factory manager to Chinese mogul: 'Ip Man 3' financier Shi Jianxiang draws scrutiny

With a fortune estimated at $780 million and ranked No. 746 on the Hurun Report’s 2015 “China Rich List,” “Ip Man 3” financier Shi Jianxiang has set his sights on becoming a movie mogul.

The former boss of a lighting factory and now head of a conglomerate called Shanghai Kuailu Investment Group, Shi attended the Academy Awards last week, walking the red carpet in a striking white suit and throwing an Oscar party where he was photographed alongside stars including Adrien Brody.

In addition to putting up funds for “Ip Man 3,” Shi is bankrolling “The Bombing,” a movie featuring Brody and Bruce Willis about Japanese air raids on the city of Chongqing in World War II. Mel Gibson served as a supervising director on the movie, whose budget is about $56 million, according to Shi.

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In an interview last summer in the penthouse suite of a Beijing hotel, Shi claimed to have invested 2 billion renminbi, or $300 million, in films. Among the other projects he said he was exploring included “The Expendables 4” and a long-discussed Mike Medavoy movie, about Jews seeking refuge in Shanghai during World War II.

“Over the years I have been watching the box office in China: When it hit 1 billion [renminbi], I was simply observing. When it hit 10 billion, I paid attention to it, when it hit 20 billion I went to Hollywood and studied it,” Shi said, chain-smoking two brands of cigarettes.

“I started investing in the film industry when the box office was over 30 billion. [These days,] one can invest a bicycle and be rewarded with a BMW,” he said, offering guests glasses of 1988 Petrus Pomerol grand vin, a Bordeaux that goes for about $1,500 a bottle.  

The 52-year-old Shi, who is well-connected in Shanghai and is a member of a government advisory body in the city, said he was raised in the countryside, the son of farmers who grew corn, rice, cotton and soybeans. As a young man, he sneaked into the Shenzhen soon after it was designated a “special economic zone.” He read newspapers to learn about the city and started a business.  

He graduated from what is now Shanghai University in 1987. He entered the Shanghai Party School, for Communist Party members, in 1992. He got a big break in the late 1990s when he was tapped to take over four foundering state-run companies, including Shanghai Kuailu Wire and Cable Ltd. He later renamed his enterprise Shanghai Kuailu Investment Group. (Kuailu means “fast deer.”) Among other products, the company manufactures telecom and power cables for customers including China Telecom, Siemens and Fujitsu.

Several years ago, Shi became chairman of Beijing Max Screen, a film distribution company.
Tall and brawny, Shi has a personality to match his outsized fortune. The recipient of a honorary doctorate, he’s not shy about affixing “Dr.” in front of his name. His business card is stuffed with so many titles and honorary designations it folds open like a book.

He leverages his encounters with political figures and celebrities, presenting new female acquaintances with a red scarf — identical, he mentions, to the one he gave Michelle Obama.
On Feb. 25, Shi was named executive director of Shifang Holding Ltd., a company incorporated in the Cayman Islands and traded in Hong Kong, after purchasing 160 million shares for about $16.4 million (U.S.), or about 10 cents apiece, filings with the Hong Kong exchange show.

The company, which was previously in the newspaper and magazine publishing business, announced plans to spend about $17 million to acquire 55% of the mainland theatrical profits of “Ip Man 3” from Shanghai Hehe Film. The companies said they may cooperate on future projects going forward.

As the mainland release date of “Ip Man 3” neared, Shifang’s shares soared and the company attracted major new shareholders including Greater China Financial Holdings Ltd., which spent $5 million to buy 13 million shares, according to disclosures to the Hong Kong stock exchange. As of Friday, Shi’s total stake of 187 million shares had risen in value to about $89 million.
Shifang’s shares plummeted this week after mainland authorities announced they were investigating suspected irregularities in the box office results for “Ip Man 3,” though as of Tuesday Shi appeared to have still made a profit on his investment.

In June, Shi said Kuailu was focused on investing in financial platforms, Internet businesses, films and “the capital market.”

“Our goal is to invest half in Hollywood-related films, and the other half in Chinese films,” he said. “Basically Kuailu group is focusing on two things: We have the stock shares in our left hand, and the film tickets in our right hand.”

Twitter: @JulieMakLAT

Nicole Liu and Yingzhi Yang in the Times’ Beijing Bureau contributed to this report. 

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