Wang Jianlin

Wang Jianlin’s deal for Legendary shows he means business when it comes to film

China’s richest man put his money where his mouth is in buying a major American film production house, observers say. Putting it with cinema chain he owns and film studio complex he’s building in Qingdao and you have a vertically integrated film business like Hollywood of old

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 January, 2016, 4:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 January, 2016, 4:00am

Wang Jianlin has long been one of China’s most powerful businessmen, a former military man who made his fortune in real estate. Now the richest man in China is poised to become one of the most influential players in Hollywood.

The chairman of Dalian Wanda Group’s recent US$3.5 billion acquisition of Legendary Entertainment – one of the US production companies behind The Dark Knight, Jurassic World and Godzilla movies – gives 61-year-old Wang a new level of influence over Hollywood’s cultural landscape and his country’s ability to project “soft power” around the world.

“We have to have a position in the global industry,” Wang said at a news conference to formally announce the Legendary purchase. “And a few American movie companies have these commanding heights of the movie industry in the world. We want to change this situation and the landscape.”

He’s been working hard in recent years to do that, scooping up a trove of other media and entertainment businesses. In 2015, Wanda acquired a 20 per cent stake in Spanish soccer club Atletico Madrid for US$52 million, bought Swiss sports marketing company Infront Sports & Media for US$1.2 billion and purchased Florida’s World Triathlon for US$900 million.

Wang has also steadily built his presence in Los Angeles. In 2014, his company bought the site of the former Robinsons-May department store in Beverly Hills for US$420 million, and has plans for a mixed-use development there. He’s also donated US$20 million to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for its new film museum.

“He is building credibility so that when he expresses interest, you know it is going somewhere, it is not just talk,”says University of Southern California political science professor Stanley Rosen, a Chinese film expert.

Until the Legendary deal, Wang was best known in Hollywood for his 2012 purchase of exhibitor AMC Entertainment for US$2.6 billion, making his company the largest cinema operator in the world.

The AMC acquisition raised Wang’s profile in Hollywood, but the Legendary deal is seen as potentially more significant. Burbank-based Legendary is a major producer and maintains a marketing and distribution deal with one of the industry’s biggest studios – Universal Pictures.

“It really cements his reputation as someone who is following through, putting down money,” says Rob Cain, a producer and veteran studio consultant on China. “I don’t know if there is anyone else out there anywhere – even in the US – who is kind of like an old school mogul and making some big bets and putting his money where his mouth is.”

It allows a company like Wanda and a visionary like Wang to continue to grow in ways that are symbiotic
Marc Ganis

Thomas Tull, who founded Legendary in 2005, will continue to run it.

By acquiring Legendary, Wanda has created a vertically integrated film enterprise, says Marc Ganis, co-founder and managing director of Jiaflix Enterprises, which helps studios distribute movies in China.

“Were this in the United States, it would be considered a violation of antitrust laws – but there are no antitrust laws in China,” Ganis says. “It allows a company like Wanda and a visionary like Wang to continue to grow in ways that are symbiotic.”

A major part of Wang’s showbiz plans centres on an US$8 billion real estate development planned for Qingdao, northeast China. It would include 30 film and TV sound stages, postproduction facilities and a replica of a New York City street. The project, called Wanda Studios Qingdao, was revealed at a splashy event in 2013 that was attended by studio executives, talent agents and actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicole Kidman.

Legendary could give credibility to the Qingdao project, says Noble Coker, who until last year was an executive in Wanda’s theme park division.

“The hard part is figuring out how to make this work,” says Coker, a business strategy lecturer at USC’s Marshall School of Business. “If you look at the new acquisition in this context, it fits in very well with ‘we’re going to have to learn this, we need to understand it so we can make sure that the investment in Qingdao works at the end of the day.’”

Los Angeles Times