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Asia's richest man Wang Jianlin scripts his own Hollywood dreams

Mr Wang, chairman of Dalian Wanda, intends to drastically expand its foreign revenue, which could see him snap up other top US studios.
Mr Wang, chairman of Dalian Wanda, intends to drastically expand its foreign revenue, which could see him snap up other top US studios.PHOTO: REUTERS

Asia's richest man has big showbiz plans, taking over top firms abroad and building world's largest studio at home

Hollywood barely blinked when a Chinese property tycoon bought an ailing American cinema chain in 2012.

Less than four years later, however, Tinseltown executives are sitting straight up, wondering how much further Mr Wang Jianlin, 61, will tighten his grip on America's entertainment industry.

As Asia's richest man wrapped up the US$3.5 billion (S$5 billion) takeover of Legendary Entertainment, a major Hollywood film studio, last Tuesday, they had their answer.

"It's entirely possible in the future that we'll hold an even bigger ceremony, to announce we bought an even bigger entertainment group," Mr Wang told reporters in Beijing, in a glitzy ceremony filled with models, music and dazzling lights.

His purchase of the studio, which produced the hugely successful Dark Knight Batman trilogy and last year's Jurassic World, made the billionaire the first Chinese to control a Hollywood film company.

BRINGING CHINA TO THE WORLD

No matter how good Disney is, it is still American culture. We hope to use Chinese culture.

MR WANG JIANLIN, the first Chinese to control a Hollywood film company, on plans to promote his native heritage

His conglomerate, Dalian Wanda, is set to help Legendary expand in China's fast-growing film market, whose box office could surpass North America's by 2018.

The move enlarges the tycoon's footprint in the global entertainment business, which began in 2012 with the purchase of theatre chain AMC Entertainment and its 4,000 movie screens for US$2.6 billion, making Wanda the world's largest cinema owner.

"He is a force of nature," said DreamWorks Animation chief Jeffrey Katzenberg in a New York Times interview last year. "He is a very, very strong personality, and he is extremely confident about what he is doing."

That self-belief led Mr Wang to defy naysayers in 2013 as he set about building the world's largest and priciest movie studio in China. Costing US$8 billion, it is set to open in April next year.

Situated on a sprawling 500ha site at the foot of a hill, Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis will also include a theme park and entertainment centre, a 4,000-room resort and hotel complex, a shopping mall, a 300-berth yacht club, a celebrity wax museum and even a hospital.

It is touted to have one of the largest and most technologically advanced film production facilities in the world. There are 30 sound stages, a temperature-controlled underwater stage and a 56,000 sq ft green-screen outdoor stage.

Some in Hollywood scoffed when Wanda embarked on this exorbitant project... until Mr Wang got a string of A-listers - including Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman and John Travolta - to attend the ground-breaking ceremony in Qingdao.

Last year, Wanda also bought Australian cinema chain Hoyts, which operates 450 screens nationwide.

These acquisitions around the world have brought Mr Wang closer to his dream of building a globally renowned conglomerate, whose brand is as recognisable as Microsoft, Apple or Walmart.

They also serve to diversify Wanda's portfolio from its traditional real estate base, where Mr Wang made his initial fortune.

The Sichuan native served for 16 years in the People's Liberation Army before joining a property firm in the north-eastern city of Dalian in 1986. Years later, he took over the company and renamed it Dalian Wanda.

With Beijing cooling its property sector in recent years, Wanda has been moving more resources abroad and into services.

Mr Wang hopes to increase his group's annual revenues by US$100 billion by 2020, with a fifth coming from outside China.

Yet, his silver screen ambitions have frequently been questioned. Sceptics suggest Wanda's entry into Hollywood is meant to serve a policy push by Chinese leaders.

In October 2011, a Communist Party communique cited an "urgency for China to strengthen its cultural soft power and global cultural influence". Likewise, President Xi Jinping has been preaching the importance of promoting Chinese culture.

After the purchase of Legendary, a Global Times commentary last week said that China had "a long way to go in building soft power" and that pioneer firms like Wanda "deserve more encouragement".

Mr Wang has never been shy about his stated aim of promoting his native culture.

"No matter how good Disney is, it is still American culture. We hope to use Chinese culture," he said at the groundbreaking ceremony for a Chinese culture amusement park in 2014.

But he has denied doing the bidding of the Chinese government. After buying AMC, he emphasised he would not dictate what films were shown in United States theatres.

He kept AMC's American management team and, at Legendary, founder and chief Thomas Tull will continue running the studio.

"Government soft power belongs to another sphere," Mr Wang said at the signing ceremony between Wanda and Legendary. "I mainly focus on business interests."

Still, this foray into Hollywood is unlikely to be his last. Other major studios linked to Wanda previously include Lions Gate Entertainment (which made The Hunger Games trilogy) and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which produces the James Bond franchise.

Mr Wang told Bloomberg in 2014 that US movie studios were falling over themselves to sell stakes to him.

"Many people come knocking at my door," he said. "But Wanda is interested only in the big players and we want control."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2016, with the headline 'Chinese tycoon scripts his own Hollywood dreams'. Print Edition | Subscribe