China's Wanda Deal for Aussie Exhibitor Is Latest Sign of Global Ambitions

Wanda's Wang Jianlin

Wanda chairman Wang Jianlin has made no secret of his desire to become a major international player.

News that Wanda Cinema Line, the exhibition unit of Chinese real estate giant Dalian Wanda Group, would buy Australian cinema operator Hoyts Group is the latest sign of Wanda chairman Wang Jianlin's international ambitions.

Wanda also owns AMC Entertainment in the U.S. and is currently the biggest exhibitor in China, with 150 multiplexes in 80 cities largely located in its shopping malls. Wanda Cinema went public earlier this year. The company also has plans on the production side, launching major project The Ghouls, directed by Wu'ershan, during the Cannes Film Festival this year.

Wang Jianlin is China's richest individual, according to at least one list, and in 2012 he made a bold signal of his international intentions when he bought the AMC Entertainment theater chain for $2.6 billion. It is the second-largest U.S. cinema chain.

The Hoyts deal is one between friends though. Wang's good friend Sun Xishuang bought Hoyts only in December with his ID Leisure Ventures from a private equity fund that had owned it since 2007. Terms of that deal weren't disclosed, but reports at the time put the price tag between $750 million and $1 billion, and some observers expect the new deal to be in the same range.

In some ways, the deal blindsided Wanda-watchers who had been expecting Wang to add a European cinema chain to the company's already global film-exhibition network. But Wanda has been busy in Australia of late. In May, Wanda helped fund two new weekly Queensland air services to Asia, with Qantas budget carrier Jetstar set to link the Gold Coast with the central Chinese city of Wuhan.

And the deal adds a big player in Australia. Hoyts is Australia's largest exhibitor with 341 screens, or 16 percent of the market in 2014, according to Screen Australia. It also includes the Val Morgan cinema screen advertising business.

But Australian box office is seen as pretty mature. Box office in the country was down 2.3 percent in 2014 to $835 million (AUS$1.074 billion) and down from 2010's record of AUS$1.132 billion.

Everyone is still waiting for a big Wanda move into Hollywood, of course. In August last year, Wanda spent $1.2 billion on a Beverly Hills headquarters, which Wang said would help China’s entry into Hollywood’s film industry and generally promote Chinese culture abroad.

In Sept. 2013, Wanda brought Hollywood A-listers, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman and Harvey Weinstein, to China to launch the Qingdao studio facility, which is slated to open in 2017 in the eastern Chinese port city.

While it was a showy move, more significant was his decision to appoint former Fox Studios Australia CEO Nancy Romano as COO of Wanda Studios Qingdao. In Cannes this year, Wanda's Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis project had a high-profile stand.

Beyond those big symbolic moves, Wang sees Wanda as being in China’s first group of "real" multinational companies and has repeatedly insisted on the importance of the group's internationalization strategy. For example, during an interview with CNN a year ago, Wang asked the reporter if his company was for sale.