China's Wanda Unveils $8.2 Billion Movie Fund As Hollywood A-Listers Lend Support

Clifford Coonan
The Hollywood Reporter
China's Wanda Pushing Film Credentials With 'The Palace'

QINGDAO, China – China's Wanda Group has unwrapped an $8.2 billion film investment plan to transform the country's movie industry into the world's biggest within five years, and group chairman Wang Jianlin said the company, which bought AMC last year, is just starting to expand globally.

Hollywood A-listers turned out in force in searing sunshine in Qingdao, northeastern China, with Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman and Harvey Weinstein there to show moral support for the Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis complex, which is slated to open in 2017 in the eastern Chinese port city.

The facility will include a 10,000 square-meter film studio and 19 smaller facilities, along with a theme park similar to the Universal Studios franchise. The project will also include a permanent auto show, a yacht center, an international hospital, hotels and bars.

"The future of the world’s film industry is in China because we have 1.3 billion people, and we will have the biggest film business in the world by 2018," Wang told the assembled glitterati, that also included the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, John Travolta, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ewan McGregor, Kate Beckinsale and Christoph Waltz.

Wanda has signed agreements with film studios and talent agencies to have about 30 foreign movies produced at the new facility every year, as well as 100 local films.

Wang, who spent 17 years in the People's Liberation Army and is a key adviser to the ruling Communist Party, said the Academy had signed an agreement supporting an annual Qingdao International Film Festival every September starting from 2016. He said it would be one of the world’s top international film festivals within three to five years, pending government approval.

Depending on the success of the festival, he would discuss expanding the relationship with the Academy. Last week, Wanda donated $20 million towards the organization's film museum in Los Angeles.

The Communist Party has identified culture as a "pillar industry" and Wang expects annual revenues of 80 billion yuan ($13.1 billion) from Wanda's cultural business.

"China's economy is growing fast but it's still only half the U.S. economy, but in less than 10 years it will catch up. The Chinese movie industry cannot compete with Hollywood and there is a big gap, but that also means the potential is great. The Chinese culture industry is only two percent of our economy but in America it's 20 percent of the economy," he said.

Wang is China's richest individual and last year he bought the AMC theater chain for $2.6 billion. The acquisition of AMC Entertainment is just the beginning of its global ambitions, he said.

"My target is for Wanda to be one of the world's biggest companies in the culture industry, this is why I haven't retired yet," said the 59-year-old.

Also in attendance were a host of Chinese stars such as Zhang Ziyi, Jet Li, Tony Leung, Donnie Yen, Huang Xiaoming and Vicki Zhao.

Others braving the stark Qingdao sun were representatives from China's State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television (SAPPRFT), the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Qingdao city government officials and representatives from U.S. studios including Sony Pictures, Warner, Universal, Paramount, Lions Gate and The Weinstein Company.

DiCaprio is one of the best known foreign stars in China because of Titanic, one of the biggest box offices successes ever in the country, and the disaster epic was one of the top performing movies of last year when released in 3D.

"Whether we can attract foreign production companies to come here depends on the market. They will definitely come as long as production costs are low," said Wang.

Wanda's fortune was founded on real estate and earlier this month the tycoon said Wanda has a war chest of up to $5 billion every year to acquire foreign assets, a potent signal of the group's overseas ambitions.

Wang was this month named China's richest person by Forbes magazine, which put his fortune at $14 billion, overtaking the previous title-holder Zong Qinghou, chairman of local drinks company Hangzhou Wahaha.

Wanda operates 72 Wanda plazas, 38 five-star hotels, more than 6,000 cinema screens, 62 department stores and 68 karaoke outlets.

The group owns over nine million square meters of investment property and has been busy buying up assets in many developed markets, with entertainment a key part of the group's ambitions.

"By mergers and acquisitions we want to help Chinese films overseas. Last year we helped three and this year it will be five. The box office doesn't really matter, it's to let people know," he said, forecasting that China will match U.S. box office receipts by 2018 and double them by 2023.

Wanda's film company Wanda Media has been involved in Keanu Reeves' directorial debut Man of Tai Chi, Police Story 2013 with Jackie Chan and The Monkey King: Uproar in Heaven 3D with Donnie Yen and Chow Yun-fat.

Wang has just completed a $1.57 billion shopping spree in Britain, which included the purchase of luxury British yacht builder Sunseeker and investment in a 160-room high-rise hotel project in London.

Other overseas plans include a $1 billion investment in a five-star hotel in New York. He has previously said he wants to build Wanda hotels in eight to 10 cities outside China over the next decade.