China-wood cash lures the stars

By Malcolm Moore

If Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman and Catherine Zeta-Jones were bemused to find themselves on a red carpet in the Chinese city of Qingdao, surrounded by security guards dressed up as soldiers this week, perhaps they should get used to it.

Because the world has a new movie mogul, and the Samuel Goldwyn of our age is Chinese - a former People's Liberation Army officer with more money than Rupert Murdoch.

Wang Jianlin, a wiry 58-year-old, became China's richest man by building mammoth shopping centres, cinemas, office blocks and hotels. Now he wants to conquer Hollywood, and few would bet against him.

On Sunday, he threw his coming-out party, bizarre even by the delightfully tacky standards of other Chinese galas, in which Hollywood's finest dutifully paraded down a red carpet at the site of Qingdao's beer festival, before being driven by golf buggy back to their hotel suites.

"It is the beginning of a new era," said John Travolta, adding that Hollywood needs cash, and China does seem to have a lot of it.

"I brought my family over and I want to taste Tsingtao beer," he said.

Wang paid US$16 million ($19.3 million) to attract an A-list roster of stars to Qingdao, flying them by private jet and closing one of his five-star hotels, the 348-room Le Meridien, so they could take over its 31 suites.

Wang, who is the largest cinema magnate in the world, with 6000 screens in Asia and the United States, is already so powerful that executives from all the top Hollywood talent agencies and studios also flew out.

"It is my second time over here," said Catherine Zeta-Jones, according to the local newspaper. "I love it all. I am hoping to come to Qingdao to make a Chinese movie."

If she is sincere, her wish could come true in just four years, when Wang's Oriental Movie Metropolis will open. Costing US$8 billion, it will have the world's largest sound stage, at 9290sq m, and the only permanent underwater filming unit, and will turn out 30 foreign films and 100 Chinese films a year, Wang said.

"I believe producing films here in the movie metropolis will be cheaper than anywhere else."

But that is not all. There will also be eight hotels, an "ultra size" 5000-seat cinema, a theme park to rival Disneyland with an "interactive cinema roller coaster", where riders will "slug it out with virtual monsters".

And then a waxworks, two banquet halls, a museum of cinema, a "seaside bar street", a hospital, a permanent car show and a 300-berth yacht club.

Finally, the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has agreed to help Wang hold an annual film festival, a Chinese Oscars.

"This is the first time in its 86-year history that it has supported a festival outside the United States," a press release gushed.

Said Wang: "To start with we just wanted to build a film studio. But the return on investment would have been relatively low. So we wanted the strong cash flow from hotels, entertainment and so on."

It is all a far cry from his youth, as a skinny 15-year-old in the PLA, when he marched for two months and 1200km through snow and ice as part of his basic training.

Wang initially dreamed of being a general. When the army was trimmed in the 1990s, he was discharged and became a government official.

But that, he says, was not enough of a challenge.

"If I had stayed in government, I would be the vice-mayor of a city by now," he told one Chinese newspaper. "That is not interesting to me."

Instead, he now has the mayor of every major city in China begging him for investment. His shopping centres focus on China's rising middle class, giving them designer brands, top restaurants, karaoke bars and cinemas. They are so popular that Wang is also able to sell apartments and office space in the developments at premium prices.

But whether he can make an impact on the film world inside or outside China remains unclear. His company, Wanda, has produced only flops, including Keanu Reeves' directorial debut, The Man of Tai Chi.

"They are a cinema owner trying to turn themselves into a studio," says one Chinese film executive, who asked not to be named.

"A lot of people in their film unit come from the cinema side. But this is like becoming Warner Brothers overnight. So they will be under huge pressure now to deliver. Still, they have the resources."

Over the past few years, as the Chinese market has grown at phenomenal speed, Hollywood has been falling over itself to try to break into it, tailoring summer blockbusters to Chinese tastes and casting Chinese actors in bit parts.

"The future of the world's film industry is in China because we have 1.3 billion people," Wang said to his guests.

"Everybody sees China as an enormous opportunity," said Jeffrey Lau, an investor in Village Roadshow Asia, a two-year-old branch of the media company behind The Great Gatsby, Ocean's Eleven and The Matrix.

"Companies facing a stable market in the West are going to turn to China. Strategies differ - some are going for big budget movies, made in China which can go worldwide. We are more conservative, our model is to make money from the Chinese market."

Lau's company has scored perhaps the biggest success of any foreign player. Its partnership with Stephen Chow, a Hong Kong director, yielded Journey to the West, which made 1 billion yuan ($193.5 million) at the Chinese box office in just 16 days. Others have been less successful.

"In the last year, Chinese movies have done well at the box office, and Hollywood has suffered, but it is not a fair game," says the Chinese movie executive.

"Hollywood studios are allowed to show only 30 films a year or so, and they have to be distributed through China Film Group [the state distributor]. They cannot market their movies, they cannot even decide when they will be released.

One way to beat the restrictions is a partnership with a Chinese studio. But that leaves films at the mercy of the notoriously finicky Chinese censor.

"How many successful co-productions have there been? It is difficult to think of many," the executive said.

One Hong Kong director, Gordon Chen, was blunt in his appraisal of whether Wang, and China, could conquer the movie world.

"What is the point of moving Hollywood to China? That is a lot of money," he said, when asked about Wang's new studio.

"I know so well how difficult it is to produce a good movie. It is not so easy to be successful - it requires time, effort and sincerity. It is not a matter of money. It is all about culture. That part has to be done properly."

- Daily Telegraph UK

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a4 at 31 Aug 2014 03:34:59 Processing Time: 514ms