Wang Jianlin, the Chinese property tycoon who has been buying up theatre chains in the US, UK and Australia sees his screen empire as a means to export Chinese culture globally, according to statements in a recent TV interview with the chairman of Dalian Wanda Group.
“(AMC’s) boss is Chinese, so more Chinese films should be in their theaters where possible,” Wang was citing as saying in an account of the interview with Chinese talk show host Chen Luyu on Quartz.com.
Wanda Builds a Global Theatre Empire
Wang and Wanda first made headlines internationally in 2012 when the Chinese company known for its chain of shopping malls bought US theatre chain AMC Entertainment Holdings in a deal that the Chinese magnate valued at $2.6 billion.
With Wanda’s Cinema Line already the biggest cinema operator in China, the Chinese company quickly became the world’s largest owner of movie screens. Since then, Wang has gone on to buy more screens with his 2014 acquisition of Australian theater chain The Hoyts Group, as well as Wanda’s purchase this year of the London-based Odeon & UCI Cinemas Group from a private equity firm for $1.2 billion which gave the former PLA army office a theater empire spanning four continents.
Wang, who relied heavily on government relationships to help build his mainland empire, according to an investigation by the New York Times, has said that his company policy is to “Stay close to the government and distant from politics.”
Cinema Expansion Coincides with Government Cultural Push
And China’s government has made it a policy lately to take its messaging global. With mainland movies already carefully censored for political and cultural themes, the Xi government has been seeking opportunities to propagate Chinese culture overseas, with state-run enterprises buying up Chinese language media in Australia, Canada and other locations. The government mouthpiece China Daily has also struck distribution and paid-content deals with newspapers in Australia, and Jack Ma’s Alibaba earlier this year took over Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post with the stated mission of using the English-language paper to provide a different view of China than was currently available in the international media.
At the time that Wanda acquired AMC in 2012 Wang said that the US chain was not contractually obligated to promote mainland films, but now describes his aspirations with the Chinese phrase, “pu tian tong ying” — terms used to promote the export of mainland films. Earlier this year the head of China’s government media bureau explained the export of appropriately-messaged Chinese films as a key element in winning global cultural wars.
In the TV interview, Wang mentioned that, since the AMC buyout, the American theater chain has screened over 50 Chinese films with 15 shown in the US last year alone.
Buying Studios and More Screens
Wang has also made it clear that his ambitions do not stop at film distribution. In January this year Wanda purchased Hollywood film production firm Legendary Entertainment in a deal which Wang valued at $3.5 billion, and the company is said to be bidding for Paramount Studios with Wang having declared his intention to own at least one Hollywood Studio.
More screens could also be on the way for Wanda, with the mainland group reportedly still in discussions to buy US-based Carmike Studios, and earlier this month India’s PVR cinemas said that Wanda was in advanced due diligence to buy out the sub-continent’s largest theatre chain.
Unfortunately for Wang, owning studios and screens does not guarantee that movie-goers will actually watch Chinese government-approved films. According to online ticket-sales reporting service Box Office Mojo, 14 of the 15 Chinese films that Wanda showed in its AMC theatres last year pulled in only a little over $5 million in ticket sales, with some of them reaching less than $100,000 in box office.