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Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin is rolling out the red carpet in Tinseltown — and in many ways, the moment is more overdue than unexpected.
The 61-year-old chairman of China’s Dalian Wanda Group, a sprawling real estate company that is attempting to transform itself into a global entertainment powerhouse, arrived in Los Angeles by private jet over the weekend. On Monday night, Wang will host an invite-only gala at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which is expected to draw a who’s who of Hollywood A-listers ranging from studio heads to celebs to local politicians.
The event will to be a true China-meets-Hollywood occasion: Wanda is said to have flown in a team of traditional Chinese acrobats, magicians and a Chinese pop singer to kick off the show. Several Chinese diplomats and Beijing-based entertainment execs have also jetted over, courtesy of Wanda, to meet their U.S. counterparts. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti and Cheryl Boone Isaacs, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, are scheduled to deliver speeches. But the headliner will undoubtedly be Wang, China’s richest man and most ambitious international dealmaker of late.
Although the evening’s ostensible theme is “navigating business in China,” Wang will use at least part of his speech to promote the Qingdao Movie Metropolis, a massive film studio that Wanda is building in eastern China.
On Saturday, news leaked that Wanda will unveil a lucrative 40 percent production rebate for film and TV projects that shoot in Qingdao. The subsidy scheme, to be co-funded by the Qingdao regional governments and Wanda, will transform China overnight into one of the world’s most financially attractive places to shoot a big-budget movie. Underlining this new reality, Wang is expected to announce several production commitments from Hollywood studios Monday night.
With a price tag of $8.2 billion, the Qingdao Movie Metropolis (QMM) was designed by the Pinewood Group, the U.K.-based industry leader in state-of-the-art sound stage construction and management. The completed project will span some 408 acres and comprise 30 stages, including the world’s largest indoor film stage — at 100,000 square feet, it will be nearly twice the size of the world’s current biggest at Pinewood London.
Wanda’s unprecedented step of co-financing the 40 percent rebate itself shows just how committed Wang is to making sure the facility is embraced. Rebates and production incentives are a familiar feature of the global screen industry, as territories jockey to attract the business activity and promotional benefits of film and TV production. But they tend to be financed by regional governments — no private enterprise had ever attempted to jointly bankroll a major incentive.
QMM is scheduled to launch in phases, leading up to a grand opening of the full studio in August 2018. Pacific Rim: Maelstrom, the sequel to Legendary Entertainment’s Pacific Rim, will be the first U.S. production to shoot there. Some 15 stages will be operational by the time Maelstrom arrives next week to begin building sets.
Although Wanda has been an aggressive acquirer of North American entertainment assets — the company bought control of theater circuit AMC Entertainment in 2012 and acquired Thomas Tull’s Legendary Entertainment for $3.5 billion in January — Monday night’s gathering will be the first major event the company has hosted in the U.S.
It comes at a particularly delicate juncture for Wang and his conglomerate. Last month, 16 members of Congress sent a letter to the head of the Government Accountability Office, urging the office to re-examine its process for reviewing foreign investments in the U.S., and to consider whether the system needs to be expanded to include entertainment and media assets. Citing Wanda by name, the lawmakers suggested that Chinese acquisitions of entertainment companies could leave the U.S. susceptible to the influence of foreign propaganda.
In an interview with CNN Money last month, Wang said the lawmakers were “over-worried,” and argued that any change to Hollywood content was a result of U.S. studios adding local elements to court the growing Chinese movie market — rather than private Chinese companies actively exerting influence within the U.S.
While he’s known for his outspokenness, insiders expect Wang’s speech Monday to be shaded by a new concern for public relations. “Wang is more persistent than most people,” a Wanda deputy told THR, asking not to be named because they weren’t permitted to speak on behalf of the company. “There is a Chinese saying ‘when you hit the yellow river, you go back.’ But the chairman says ‘build a bridge and cross it.'”
The pace of Wanda’s deal-making shows no sign of slowing down. In late September, Wanda announced a strategic marketing and co-financing partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment — Wang also told Reuters in September that he intends to invest in productions from all six of the U.S. studios.
The Sony deal was followed by news that Wanda is holding preliminary talks to purchase Dick Clark Productions, the company behind the Golden Globe Awards, American Music Awards and Billboard Music Awards — the price tag is reportedly in the $1 billion range.
Wang also has repeatedly indicated that he would like to own one of the major Hollywood studios outright, saying he’d be interested in the first that comes up for sale. “We are waiting for the opportunity,” he told CNN. “It could come in a year or two, or longer, but we have patience.”
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