Wang Jianlin is the wealthiest man in China, owns the biggest theater chain in the world and wants to create the world's largest movie studio in his home country.
Hollywood is taking the billionaire chairman of Dalian Wanda Group Corp. seriously, but proceeding cautiously.
Studio executives, talent agents and luminaries such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman and Harvey Weinstein stood with Wang for the Sunday unveiling of the planned Oriental Movie Metropolis — an $8.2-billion project that would include 20 film and TV sound stages near Qingdao, along with a theme park, wax museum and space for an annual film festival.
If Wang has his way, Hollywood studios would film at the moviemaking facility, part of a massive complex that would also feature a yacht club, exhibition center and hotels. Wang also predicts that China's box-office revenue will double by 2023, overtaking the U.S. in 2018.
But industry insiders says that while China's movie business is growing quickly — the country has become the second-largest film market in the world — there are substantial hurdles for Wang's plans on the creative and technical fronts.
"It's a significant announcement," said attorney John Burke, head of the entertainment group at law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. "The difficulty is going to be working out creative controls and providing a sufficient number of A-level crews in China to make multiple studio-quality movies concurrently. The studios are going to test the waters because they need to have a Chinese partner. They will start making movies down there and see how that works out."
The movie business is increasingly reliant on the international marketplace. Last year, nearly 70% of total box-office receipts came from outside the U.S. and Canada, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America.
"With the huge potential that comes with a population of 1.3 billion, the global film industry will recognize that the sooner you partner with China, the sooner you make more money," said China state news service Xinhua in paraphrasing Wang, whose net worth is estimated at $22 billion.
This month, Wanda, owner of theater chain AMC Entertainment, announced a $20-million donation to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for its forthcoming film museum.
Though Wanda trumpeted a successful round of deal making with Hollywood players, it's not clear whether any film studios, production companies or talent agencies — and their clients — have signed any substantial agreements with the company.
Los Angeles film studio 20th Century Fox sent representatives to the event, as did Burbank's Warner Bros., but has not struck a deal with Wanda. Talent agencies William Morris Endeavor and Creative Artists Agency dispatched agents to Sunday's unveiling but have not struck deals with the company.
United Talent Agency does not have a formal deal with Wanda, but the agency's chief executive, Jeremy Zimmer, attended Sunday's event and came away "hopeful."
"We have an understanding of how to do business with each other and an agreement and a commitment to work to build something that is very important to Wanda," Zimmer said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon from Shanghai.
While movie stars attended the event — also on hand were John Travolta, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ewan McGregor, Christoph Waltz and Kate Beckinsale — at least several were paid rich fees to appear, according to sources with knowledge of the matter.
"There is no question Hollywood is interested — look at the people who were there," said Stanley Rosen, a Chinese film expert and USC political science professor. "But let's see who buys in from Hollywood."
Wanda could not be reached for comment.
According to published reports, Wang expects the new facility — which would partly open by 2016 — to generate 30 foreign productions a year, in addition to 100 film and TV projects from domestic companies.
"Wanda is a new player with great reach," said talent agent David Unger of Resolution, who represents Michelle Yeoh, star of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the most successful Chinese-American co-production of all time. "It's encouraging."
Wanda's announcement is less about financing Hollywood movie slates and more about encouraging studios to come to China to produce their movies.
That is a potentially attractive proposition to major studios. Doing co-production in China would allow them to bypass China's quota system on foreign movies, and give them a larger share of film revenue. A production facility in China also would give studios access to a low-cost pool of labor.
But studios have been frustrated by the actions of state-owned distributor China Film Group, which in April yanked Quentin Tarantino's "Django Unchained" from theaters the day it premiered. The agency also has angered studios by forcing American blockbusters to compete against each other on the same weekend, a tactic perceived to favor local productions.
Wanda's project is the latest push by the conglomerate to cement ties with the U.S. entertainment industry. Last year, Wanda paid $2.6 billion in a landmark deal to buy AMC, the nation's second-largest theater chain.
Wang told The Times then that he planned to invest $10 billion in U.S. companies in the next decade, which could include buying department stores, hotel management companies and at least one more cinema chain. Wanda also announced in July a deal with Imax Corp. to open 120 new Imax theaters in China, bringing Wanda's total Imax commitment in China to a maximum of 210 theaters. The Quingdao project would also have an Imax presence, such as a screening room or postproduction facility.
"We've been having ongoing discussions with Wanda about including an Imax component to this project and we're in the process of working out what the specific details would be," Richard Gelfond, chief executive of Imax Corp., said Monday.
At the center of the planned development is Wang, 58, a titan of Chinese entrepreneurship. His company's imprint can be found across the skyline of most major Chinese cities. His conglomerate controls movie theaters, department stores, office buildings, luxury hotels and ritzy karaoke clubs.
Almost as ambitious as the proposed Qingdao movie studio is the 1,300-acre theme park that would surround the development. But here, too, experts were dubious. Chinese real estate developers often plan theme parks as a way to meet government rules that require a portion of their developments to offer entertainment or cultural attractions. But many balk at the cost of the park or shy away from paying copyright fees to partner with established brands.
As a result, many parks are built cheaply and developers abandon foreign consultants shortly after the initial planning stage.
But Hollywood has reason to be hopeful — if only because there is potential big business in the venture. Sid Ganis, former president of motion picture academy, believes the relationship between Hollywood studios and Wanda is poised to deepen.
"The puzzle fits together," said Ganis, who is the honorary chairman of a government-owned movie studio near Shanghai. "I think China itself is this incredibly verdant territory [in which] to make films that are exportable to the rest of the world. The rest of the world hasn't had a good enough look at China yet."
Times staff writers Richard Verrier, David Pierson and Steven Zeitchik contributed to this report.
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