Wang Jianlin was in his element. Revelling in the razzmatazz, the billionaire boss of China’s Dalian Wanda Group unveiled the sprawling US$8 billion Movie Metropolis in the Eastern China port city of Qingdao at the weekend.
The 400-acre studio complex covers an area of 200 football, or soccer, fields and includes hotels, theme parks and a yacht club in Shandong province. It is also partially built on an artificial island.
Like everything else in the world’s second largest-economy, it has been billed as the biggest movie lot on the planet and the country’s answer to Hollywood. “We will boost the Chinese movie industry development,” Wang said at the opening ceremony. “We will also turn Qingdao into a global hub for film.”
Yet this grand opening comes just months after Beijing’s crackdown on what are known as “Gray Rhinos.” These massive groups are considered rogue “creatures,” which could cause financial havoc at the drop of a film prop.
Earlier in the year, Dalian started offloading assets after expanding in the United States by acquiring the cinema group AMC Entertainment for about $2.6 billion in 2012 and Legendary Entertainment, the studio behind Jurassic World and Interstellar, for $3.5 billion in February 2017.
Movie Metropolis has emerged unscathed from the clampdown. “This is the largest investment the global film and television industry has ever seen,” Wang said at the launch.
Shortly after, Dalian sold a portfolio of domestic hotels and tourism assets, including 13 theme parks, for $9 billion to R&F Guangzhou Properties and Sunac China, even though its assets exceeded 700 billion yuan ($110 billion) last year.
But Movie Metropolis has emerged unscathed from the clampdown. “This is the largest investment the global film and television industry has ever seen,” Wang said at the launch.
Still, this mutual courtship between China and Hollywood looks less rosy these days. A handful of US-China film ventures have fallen apart due to cultural clashes, while financing deals have also collapsed.
Tinseltown’s share of the Chinese market has also lost ground to a surge of popular and sometimes patriotic-minded domestic films. Another problem has been the on-going trade dispute between Washington and Beijing, which has left relations strained.
“There are four pillars underpinning America’s dominant power in the world, namely the military, technology the US dollar and culture,” Sun Xi, the founder and CEO of ESGuru, a Singapore-based consultancy, wrote for Asia Times.
“China is considered a strong competitor and even a threat to America in almost all domains. And those perceptions lead to real actions.”
So far, only two major movies, Legendary Entertainment’s Pacific Rim: Uprising and Great Wall, have been produced by Movie Metropolis, which was partially opened in 2016. The original plan was to make at least eight a year.
But in the current climate, it will take more than Wang’s razzmatazz to get that storyline back on track.
– with reporting from Reuters