Nations Trust, SFG eye studio, theme park


BEIJING -- Nations Trust Ltd. has raised $800 million in private equity, mostly from one "major Western player," to develop a movie studio and theme park with the Shanghai Film Group Corp., an executive of the little-known and self-described "offshore project development and finance company," said late Monday.

William Jackson, European director of privately held Nations Trust, said in an interview that he co-signed a joint-venture "cooperation" agreement on Feb. 14 with SFG president Ren Zhonglun to help build up SFG's current assets at an eventual cost of $1.5 billion.

Nations Trust China Holdings Ltd., a wholly-owned subsidiary established to manage the project, holds rights to 75% of the shares in the "Hollywood China Studio" joint venture, according to a statement about the deal released earlier in the day. It went on to offer equity participation to interested investors.

"The joint venture is set up, and we are signing off on our shareholders now," said Jackson, a Dubliner by birth who claims a background in corporate insurance and fundraising and experience in stage musicals in the U.S. and Britain.

In the few recognized joint ventures between overseas and Chinese entities in China's closely guarded media sector, Chinese partners hold the majority stake.

After seven years of trying, if Jackson gets the project going, it could be a breakthrough for overseas investors wishing to gain a foothold in movie studios and theme parks in China's largest city.

But the precedents are tough. Warner Bros. last November divested itself of its Shanghai-based Chinese movie theater business after a rule shift barred it from owning a majority share in properties it developed. Rumors about a Disneyland in Shanghai have persisted since one opened in Hong Kong in late 2005.

Meanwhile, many of the Warner theaters were snapped up by SFG -- a unit of the Shanghai Media Group, considered one of the most outward-looking firms in a strictly regulated media environment.

An official in Ren's office at SFG said that, while Ren had signed what she called a "memorandum of understanding" with Jackson, Ren wished to communicate that "SFG is willing to discuss projects of this nature with any partners hoping to develop China's film industry," and that SFG had "not reached any details about how to execute the Nations Trust plan."

"Nor did we, at any point discuss the name 'Hollywood China Studios,' " she said, adding that Ren declined comment on the Nations Trust statement.

Jackson said that the statement detailing the agreement in general terms was meant, "to squelch rumors about which Hollywood parties were involved in the deal" and was "not my idea."

Asked for more detail about the shareholders in the project, Jackson declined comment. "We're not out to have stories written about us," he said.