Media mogul Wang Jianlin bets on world’s largest movie studios to turn Qingdao into China’s Hollywood
At the Oriental Movie Metropolis in this seaside city, workers are putting finishing touches on the fittings and glitzy lights of the world’s largest movie production studios: a 50-billion yuan (US$7.9 billion), five-year undertaking by Wang Jianlin, once China’s wealthiest businessman.
On a hill overlooking the site, four gigantic Chinese characters read out the studios’ name Dongfang Yingdu, in a nod to Hollywood’s fabled sign in Los Angeles.
Feng Shen, a trilogy based on the classical Chinese myth Fengshen Yanyi, has committed its 3 billion yuan production budget to using half of the 30 sound stages at Oriental for the next two years. As many as six Chinese films have also signed up to use the facility this year.
Wang, whose sprawling business empire ranges from real estate to the Hollywood studio Legendary Entertainment, harbours the ambition of turning the world’s largest box office market into the planet’s movie production hub.
The mogul, 63, once outlined a vision of owning one in every five movie screens on earth, and had made a series of global acquisitions to realise his dream.
A real estate and theme park developer at heart, he has good reason to bet on China’s movie industry, where the first-quarter box office receipts surged 40 per cent to 20.2 billion yuan, surpassing North America for the first time, according to China Film News. The figure for the whole of 2013 was 21.8 billion yuan.
The scale of the Oriental metropolis is a testament of Wang’s ambitions. Sitting on 166 hectares (410 acres) of land - including a reclaimed island with condominiums and a yacht club - the production zone will eventually feature 52 hi-tech sound stages, 30 of which have been finished, with 10 under construction. There are outdoor filming areas, with scenes stretching from Europe’s cobble-stoned streets to the cityscape of 1930s Shanghai.
A mall with 360,000 square metres (3.88 million square feet) of shopping space stands in the middle of the metropolis, featuring 30 cinema screens operated by the mogul’s Wanda Cinemas unit, with illuminated portraits of Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and Bruce Lee on the mall’s exterior.
Wang’s acquisitions, largely fuelled by bank borrowings, were clipped somewhat last year following the government’s crackdown on outsize global purchases.
He sold a majority stake in the Oriental metropolis to Sunac China Holdings together with a dozen theme parks across the country for 43.8 billion yuan, the largest real estate sale in the country’s corporate history. Wanda still retains branding and management rights to the Qingdao studios.
For now, Hollywood remains interested but uncommitted. Production heads from six of the biggest Hollywood studios attended the opening day of the studios, but none has committed to filming a movie here.
Of the top 100 American movies produced in 2016, not a single one was filmed in China, while Oriental was still under construction. So far, the only films produced in Qingdao were Legendary’s “Great Wall” and “Pacific Rim: Uprising”.
“For such a huge hub we can’t limit our market to domestic or international, or any particularly genre,” said Alvin Fu, vice head of the movie metropolis, adding that a major reason for no major Hollywood production now is that the details of a tax incentive remain in the works.
A 5 billion yuan movie and television fund, 50:50 funded by Qingdao government and Wanda, promised a 20-40 per cent production subsidy to qualifying productions. The specification has just been announced.
Besides subsidies, Fu said the Metropolis boasts world-class facilities, not only stages but also malls, yacht club, international hospital and school. It also provides “one-stop” services that cover all possible needs.
“Even if you go to Los Angeles you can hardly find a production destination that also offer a lifestyle for production crews,” he said, adding he expected the hub would take a much shorter time than other production centres to mature.
But to attract domestic film and television crews, Wanda’s Qingdao complex has to compete head-on with other established production hubs in China, such as the Hengdian World Studios in Zhejiang province, with 13 studios.
“The cost in Hengdian has become more expensive,” said Wei Qi, a movie producer in Beijing, who said he’s curious about Qingdao’s potential, even though he doesn’t know of anybody else who’s filming in the new studios. “I heard that the Qingdao studios offer a broader variety of scenes than other facilities, like the ability to film scenes in outer space.”