Thomas Tull has resigned as chairman and chief executive of Legendary Entertainment, nearly a year after China’s Dalian Wanda Group acquired the Burbank film and TV production company in a high-profile deal worth $3.5 billion.
Wanda has installed Jack Gao as Legendary’s interim chief executive while it searches for a full-time replacement for Tull, 46, who founded Legendary in 2005. Under Tull, who made his bones in private equity, Legendary became a formidable Hollywood production company and had a hand in such blockbusters as “The Dark Knight,” “Godzilla” and “Jurassic World.”
Legendary has had an up-and-down run at the box office over the last few years, with films such as “Crimson Peak” and “Warcraft” failing to live up to expectations to varying degrees. Its most recent release, “The Great Wall,” starring Matt Damon, has grossed $194.5 million overseas since December and will open in the U.S. next month.
Wanda’s acquisition of Legendary stands as the largest purchase of a Hollywood production company by a Chinese firm. It confirmed the increasing importance of Chinese money in the financing of big-budget American movies as well as the ascendance of Wang Jianlin, the billionaire chairman of Beijing-based Wanda.
Now, with Tull’s exit, Wanda, which owns other show business companies, has a chance to put its stamp on Legendary. The hiring of a new CEO for Legendary will be closely watched in Hollywood, entertainment attorney Lindsay Conner said.
“They have an opportunity now in selecting the new CEO of their biggest American subsidiary to make a statement about how they want their relationship with Hollywood to proceed,” said Conner, co-chair of the entertainment and media practice at Manatt Phelps & Phillips.
Wanda also owns the AMC movie theater chain, which became the largest cinema operator in the country after acquiring Carmike Cinemas last year. It also paid $1 billion for Dick Clark Productions and last fall announced a partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment, giving it some creative control over upcoming Sony films.
Wanda said in a statement Tuesday that it would continue to support Mary Parent, who heads production at Legendary, “with the resources needed to develop and produce its existing and future film slate.”
Upcoming Legendary projects include “Kong: Skull Island,” “Pacific Rim: Uprising” and a new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s “Dune.”
In August, Wanda said it was delaying integrating Legendary into its existing operations and that the company should operate independently for a period and show that it could produce stable returns.
Tull, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes at $1.03 billion, said in a statement that after a year of transition, Legendary is “stable.”
“I am able to leave and pursue the new interests and endeavors I have been planning,” he said.
Tull plans to spend time on his Tull Investment Group, which invests in life science, media and technology firms. He will retain the title of founding chairman and remain a stakeholder in Legendary.
Gao joined Wanda in 2015 and has served as chief executive of international investments and business developments for the Wanda Cultural Industry Group. Before joining the company, he held executive positions at News Corp. and Microsoft Corp.
A spate of Chinese acquisitions in the U.S. entertainment industry has stoked concern among U.S. politicians who question whether China is playing fairly when it comes to investment here.
USC political science professor Stanley Rosen, a Chinese film expert, said that if a Chinese executive is chosen to replace Tull, that might give Wang’s critics in the U.S. “more ammunition.”
“The argument he has made is that he’s just a businessman trying to make money, and has no interest in interfering with management,” said Rosen of Wang’s stance on the Hollywood companies that Wanda has acquired. “If Thomas Tull is no longer there, people want to know why and whether Wang Jianlin’s strategy of ‘just doing business’ has changed.”
Both Tull and Legendary declined requests for comment.
Twitter: @DavidNgLAT, @DanielNMiller