The Inside Intel on Wanda Group's $8.2 Billion China Studio Plan

Kidman greets fans at the Qingdao studio groundbreaking.
Kidman greets fans at the Qingdao studio groundbreaking.
 Newscom

This story first appeared in the Oct. 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Like looky-loos flocking to a glitzy open house, a full contingent of Hollywood stars, agents and even an exec or two turned up in the coastal city of Qingdao, China, for the Dalian Wanda Group's Sept. 22 unveiling of its plans for an ambitious $8.2 billion film studio complex.

Wanda chief Wang Jianlin, 58, China's richest tycoon, boasted that the Quingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis will include 20 studios, an underwater stage, film museum and neighboring amusement park by 2017. Wanda, he said, already has signed with "a number of global film and television giants and talent agencies" to shoot about 30 foreign co-productions a year, in addition to a full slate of domestic movie and TV projects. "This is a further sign of the epochal pivot in filmed entertainment from Hollywood to China," says Mathew Alderson, a Beijing-based entertainment lawyer with Harris & Moure.

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But film executives who have regular dealings with China, including one who attended the starry groundbreaking, were more cautious in their assessments. "It's a coming-out party for Wanda," the insider tells THR. Wang "wanted to make a statement, but his plans are very ambitious." Another exec who does business in China says he wouldn't be surprised if Wang's grand plans eventually are scaled back, noting, "The Chinese are famous for wildly exaggerating what they are going to do."

As China's largest cinema operator, Wanda certainly is laying down markers. Last year, it acquired the U.S. movie chain AMC Theatres for $2.6 billion, and in early September it donated $20 million to the Motion Picture Academy's new museum. Wang's determination to bring a Hollywood presence to China was reflected by the unveiling's star wattage‚ although sources say at least some of the boldface names were paid to attend.

Leonardo DiCaprio, the most popular foreign movie star in China, was on hand, along with Nicole Kidman, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ewan McGregor and Kate Beckinsale and Chinese A-listers Jet Li, Zhang Ziyi and Donnie Yen. Also there were UTA's Jeremy Zimmer, reps from CAA and ICM and Harvey Weinstein.

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Wang predicted China's box-office revenue will surpass those of the U.S. by 2018 and double by 2023, and some noted the irony of the U.S. movie elite showing up to support China's effort to supplant Hollywood. But Alderson says "the smart money is on content produced solely for the Chinese domestic market," and U.S. studios still see huge opportunity despite the difficulty of working with restrictions laid down by China's Film Bureau.

"The industry needs an infusion of support and finance," John Travolta said during his visit. "This is the beginning of a new era." Quipped Christoph Waltz: "The red carpet is somewhat redder here than in other places," adding, "Give them a chance, they will do the right thing."

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