Wanda Denies Legendary's Thomas Tull Was Fired Over 'The Great Wall'

Thomas Tull Wang Jianlin Split - H 2016
Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage/Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg via Getty Images

In an unconventional statement posted to its website, the Chinese conglomerate rebutted media reports and hinted that attaining global distribution capacities is its goal for 2017.

Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group issued a statement Friday denying media reports that Legendary Entertainment founder Thomas Tull was forced out of the company because of disappointment over the studio's latest big-budget film, The Great Wall.

"Such reports are pure speculation," Wanda said in a statement posted to its website. "The Great Wall has just begun its global release, and it hasn't even opened in North America yet. To say that [the film] is a failure is pure imagination."

"The personnel changes at Legendary are part of larger strategic arrangements being made at Wanda Pictures," the statement said. "We have major news to be announced soon," it added.

Tull resigned as chairman and CEO of Legendary on Tuesday. The former financial-industry executive founded Legendary in 2005 as a vehicle for investing in big-budget films, such as Warner Bros.' The Dark Knight. In 2013, it became an independent studio at Universal, before selling to Wanda for a reported $3.5 billion early last year. He was said to be in a multiyear contract with Wanda, but terms of his deals have not been disclosed.

The Great Wall has made about $165 million in China and $200 million worldwide so far. Directed by Chinese master Zhang Yimou and starring Matt Damon and an array of local stars, the film cost $150 million to make, the most ever for a U.S.-China co-production. Speaking in Davos at the World Economic Forum on Wednesday, Wanda chairman Wang Jianlin called the film "an experiment" for Chinese cinema on the world stage.

"It's hitting $200 million," he said. "If it can reach $400 million or $500 million around the world, it will be a success and means a Chinese story can be a box office hit."

Few analysts expect The Great Wall to hit such numbers, however. Reviews have been mixed, and many view the China performance as below expectation.

In Tull's absence, Wanda insider and international CEO Jack Gao is holding the reins until a replacement is hired.

"We are thankful to Thomas for his founding vision," Gao said in a statement Tuesday announcing the changes. "Wanda aims to transform Legendary into a next-generation studio ... with a far-reaching creative and global platform."

Sources told THR Thursday that Wanda is courting former Fox film-studio chief Jim Gianopulos to take the helm and oversee an expansion of Legendary into a full-fledged studio with global marketing and distribution capacities.

A representative for Wanda said, "We don't comment on rumors," and Gianopulos could not be reached for comment. But Wanda's statement on Friday suggested that a major escalation at Legendary could be chief among its goals.

In reference to "the larger strategic arrangements being made at Wanda Pictures," the statement urged readers to review Wanda's year-end report, which company chairman Wang Jianlin presented to staff at a corporate gathering in eastern China last week.

In the report, Wang highlights his goals in the film sector under a section titled "Key Tasks of 2017." Priorities include reaching 20 percent market share of the global box office by 2020 and attaining capacities at each link in the film business industrial chain, to boost efficiency and allow Wanda to compete on equal footing with the Hollywood majors.

"There are tens of thousands of film companies around the world, but there are only the big six in Hollywood which have global distribution capabilities," Wang said. "Even if Wanda controls 20 percent market share at the global box office [as an exhibitor], if it cannot distribute its own films to the world, the company lacks core competitiveness in the film industry."

"So now we will focus on this issue," he said.

In Davos on Wednesday, Wang reiterated his desire to simply acquire one of Hollywood's top studios — "I would be a happy buyer." But none of them are currently for sale, he noted.

So Wanda appears to have set its sights on expanding Legendary instead. And Tull, for one, is not their man for the job.