Chinese billionaire aims to out-glitter Hollywood
One of China’s richest men, Wing Jianlin, plans to spend as much as $8.2 billion to build the country’s version of Hollywood in the northeastern city of Qingdao.
The New York Times
HONG KONG —
Los Angeles has film studios and the best-known movie- awards ceremonies. Orlando has amusement parks and resort hotels. Now, one of China’s richest men wants to copy them with a movie-themed real-estate development in his country’s most fashionable beach city.
Wang Jianlin, who is chairman of Dalian Wanda Group and reputed to be China’s wealthiest investor in publicly traded companies, announced plans Sunday for the Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis. Costing from $4.9 billion to $8.2 billion, it would encompass film studios, resort hotels, an indoor amusement park, movie theaters with up to 3,000 seats and even a hospital.
Movie stars including Nicole Kidman, John Travolta, Leonardo DiCaprio and Zhang Ziyi, among others, showed up Sunday at a showy ceremony in Qingdao for what Wang billed as marking China’s effort to become the world leader in yet another industry: filmmaking.
Dalian Wanda purchased AMC Entertainment for $2.6 billion in a deal last year that signaled China’s biggest splash yet in the American movie market.
“It is estimated that China’s film box-office revenue will surpass North America’s by 2018 and will double it by 2023 — that is why I believe the future of the world’s film industry is in China,” Wang said in a speech in Qingdao, according to a text of his remarks released by the company.
Dalian Wanda will build movie sound sets and has reached preliminary agreements with four of the biggest Hollywood movie-agent businesses to help negotiate contracts with actors and actresses for the production of 30 foreign movies a year, Wang said. It also plans deals with 50 domestic companies for the production of 100 films and television shows a year.
Chinese officials were quick to extol the Qingdao project. “Whether in terms of investment, scale or grade, Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis is an unprecedented project that will create history as it represents the highest level and the future of the development” of China’s film industry, said Li Qiankuan, the chairman of the government-controlled China Film Association.
Wang also announced plans to host an annual film festival in Qingdao every September, starting in 2016. The festival would include an elaborate awards ceremony.
But the moviemaking aspects of the plans appeared to be dwarfed by the real-estate project surrounding it.
Wang, who made an estimated $14 billion fortune as a developer, said he planned to build eight resort hotels, an enormous shopping mall, a 300-berth yacht club, numerous apartment towers, a seaside restaurant row and even a celebrity wax museum — in addition to 20 sound sets and the amusement park.
Famed for its gentle coastal climate and located between Beijing and Shanghai, Qingdao has some of the costliest real estate in China. But as it is everywhere in China, all land is owned by the government, and the support of local officials is needed to obtain land at low cost and get permission to build.
In a city where even the smallest plots have set off bidding wars, Wang’s vision seems to have captured the hearts of local leaders. He said the project would cover 929 acres in a new development on the city’s outskirts. The plan calls for constructing 58 million square feet of buildings on the site, the equivalent of 21½ Empire State Buildings.
Qingdao’s top Communist Party and government officials attended Wang’s ceremony but did not release financial details for the land.
Until a few years ago, the best way to obtain a large plot of urban land cheaply was to agree to build an auto-assembly plant. That has contributed to the development of more than 100 auto companies in China, many producing tiny numbers of cars.
Even the largest automakers in China, like Geely Group, tend to have Balkanized manufacturing networks, having set up many small assembly plants in cities scattered all over the country instead of just a few, high-output operations.
In the last five years, local governments changed tack at the direction of Beijing and began offering nearly free land either downtown or in inner suburbs to renewable-energy companies. That has helped produce a huge surge in the production of solar panels and wind turbines, as China has become by far the largest manufacturer of both.
The movie-metropolis plan suggests that China may be shifting direction again, and that projects linked to cultural development and consumer industries may emerge as the next way for developers to obtain land. New Prime Minister Li Keqiang has promised an extensive effort to expand the consumer sector and limit its dependence on investment spending.
Particularly striking about the plans for the Qingdao complex was the inclusion of the yacht club. The Chinese military has banned almost all private use of yachts along the coastline, preserving a high level of maritime control and supervision that has its roots in decades of periodic confrontations with Taiwan.
China’s wealthy entrepreneurs, virtually all of whom have strong political connections, have been pressing for more freedom to acquire and use yachts, many of which now sit at their berths for parties almost all year or are used for short trips on lakes, rivers and restricted areas of coastline.
But Beijing officials have been nervous about allowing many yacht clubs to open, fearing they could stir a populist outcry over the country’s income gap between rich and poor, which government statistics show to be one of the widest in the world.
Forbes magazine lists Wang as China’s richest man, with a fortune of $14 billion. But ranking China’s richest people is very difficult.
Chinese business executives commonly have extensive relationships with government officials that may give these officials a claim to part of their assets. And many officials own extensive but undisclosed real estate and other investments that are hard to identify and value.
Wang’s project confirms his desire to take his own rags-to-riches story, which resembles a Hollywood tale, and put himself on a global stage. Wang entered the army at 15. He then became a local government official in Dalian, before borrowing $80,000 in 1988 to start a company that is now the world’s largest operator of movie screens, with $48 billion in assets.
Wang gave a subtle hint that others should pay attention to the vast market in China, a country that responded bitterly to films, like Brad Pitt’s “Seven Years in Tibet” in 1997, which criticized China’s record on human rights and treatment of ethnic minorities.
“Those in the world film industry who realize this first and are among the first to cooperate with China,” he said, “will be the first to reap the benefits.”