Wang Jianlin for many years was China’s and Asia’s richest man, thanks to his rapidly expanding Dalian Wanda Group Co, which amassed a huge amount of holdings, including overseas trophy assets, aided at least in part by easy credit, much of it originating from sources with ties to China’s Communist Party. Based in the northeastern city of Dalian, Wanda’s interests include commercial properties, luxury hotels and department stores but is best known for shopping malls and movie theaters . Michael Forsythe wrote in the New York Times in 2015: “He controls thousands of movie screens around the world, serving more filmgoers than any other cinema chain. He has invested billions of dollars in real estate projects across four continents. He is building skyscrapers that will redraw the skylines of London and Chicago. He is shopping for a Hollywood studio. There are many billionaires in China but Wang Jianlin stands out, and not just because he is the richest person in Asia, with a fortune estimated at more than $35 billion. [Source: Michael Forsythe, New York Times, April 28, 2015]
“As his real estate and entertainment empire expanded overseas, Mr. Wang emerged as the rare private-sector tycoon in a position to advance Beijing’s interests abroad, with clout in industries and communities around the world. Prime ministers send him thank-you notes, and Hollywood’s biggest stars fly to China when he summons them. In March 2015, at an event to woo foreign investors, he was one of only a dozen businessmen to meet President Obama.
“How the son of a foot soldier in Mao Zedong’s Communist Revolution catapulted into the top tier of the global elite is an archetypal story of China’s transition to capitalism and the outsize opportunities it presents those with talent or connections — or, in Mr. Wang’s case, both. His story, though, is also singular: He built one of the world’s most valuable real estate portfolios in a nation where the state retains ownership of all land.
“A yearlong examination of his success by The New York Times casts a light on the murky intersection of business and power at the heights of the Chinese economy, where market competition is often warped by the whims of Communist Party leaders. Entrepreneurs have powered rapid growth in China for more than three decades. But even the most successful businessmen here must still reach some accommodation with the party, which only a generation ago operated a socialist planned economy. Mr. Wang says he has prospered by delivering what ambitious party officials crave: choice real estate developments that propel economic growth and bolster their careers. In return, he says, the officials sell him the rights to develop choice parcels of land at prices far below what his competitors pay.
Hurun Report hurun.net/richlisten ; Forbes Rich Chinese List forbes.com ; Forbes Lists forbes.com ; Expert: Huang Yasheng, who teaches at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is an expert on Chinese entrepreneurs.
Wanda Group and the Movie Business
Michael Forsythe wrote in the New York Times: “His conglomerate, Wanda Group, is best known in China for its signature Wanda Plazas, massive shopping complexes with cinemas, office towers, hotels and apartments. Since building the first one in the northeastern city of Changchun in 2002, he has opened more than 100 of them in at least 70 other Chinese cities as of 2015, generating the revenue that now finances his ambitions abroad.[Source: Michael Forsythe, New York Times, April 28, 2015]
Wanda evolved into China's largest privately owned company, controlling a vast portfolio of luxury hotels, sports stadiums and shopping plazas. At the end of 2012, it embraced 66 Wanda Plazas, 38 five-star hotels, 980 cinema screens, 57 department stores and 63 karaoke saloons. Wang purchased the Spanish soccer club Atletico Madrid as part of it binge-buying spree in the early 2010s as Wanda aspired to compete with Walt Disney Co. Bloomberg reported: “In his heyday, Wang jetted around in his Gulfstream G550 private plane, paying top prices for assets including a luxury property in Beverly Hills, Hollywood studio Legendary Entertainment and One Nine Elms in London, one of Europe’s tallest residential towers. [Source: Shirley Zhao, Venus Feng and Rebecca Choong Wilkins, Bloomberg, March 16, 2021]
Wanda is arguably the biggest player in the Chinese movie business as it owns many of China's movie theaters. According to the New York Times in 2012: Wanda “is involved with film production and distribution in China. It operates a rapidly growing theater chain that now had 86 multiplex locations, and a total of 730 screens, including 47 large-format Imax screens. In 2012 Wanda said that by 2015 it planned to more than double its screen count to about 2,000. [Source: Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, New York Times, May 7, 2012]
In 2011, Richard Verrier and David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times: Wanda, commanded 13.6 percent of China's box-office market — good for first place even though it ranked seventh in the number of cinemas (86) and fourth in the number of screens (730, including 288 3-D screens), according to consulting firm Artisan Gateway. "In terms of quality, I would say they're one of the highest-end chains," Wu Renchu, a Shanghai-based film blogger, said of Wanda. [Source: Richard Verrier and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, May 22, 2012]
Wanda entered the cinema business in 2004 when it signed a partnership with Warner Bros. to build dozens of modern multiplexes — a pioneering deal at the time that sparked China's cinema-building boom. In 2005, Chinese regulators reduced the share foreign companies could own in cinema ventures. Warner decided to leave shortly after.
Wang Jianlin’s Early Life During the Mao Years
Michael Forsythe wrote in the New York Times: “Mr. Wang’s father was a veteran of the Communist Party’s Long March, the arduous and deadly trek across China in the 1930s by the Communists that hardened a generation of revolutionaries, and Mr. Wang himself, the eldest of five brothers, followed him into the army as a teenager. In a 2013 appearance on state television, he recalled marching hundreds of miles through knee-deep snow in training exercises during Mao’s fanatical Cultural Revolution. “Many people couldn’t make it, ” Mr. Wang said, but he did. He then spent the next 16 years rising through the officer ranks, an experience that colleagues say informs his management style. Even his most senior Wanda executives are required to punch in and out, for example, and tardiness is not tolerated, former employees say. [Source: Michael Forsythe, New York Times, April 28, 2015]
Wang Jianlin was born on October 24, 1954, in Cangxi County, Guangyuan, Sichuan. He was the oldest of five boys. His father Wang Yiquan was a peasant who fought for Mao Zedong's People's Liberation Army during the Long March (October 1934–October 1935). His father retired from the army just before the Korean War and worked for the forestry service. He and Wang’s mother Qin Jialin settled in a village in Jinchuan County, Sichuan, where Wang Jianlin grew up. Jialin means “forest builder”. [Source: Wikipedia]
Wang became a soldier at age 15, lying about his age, and rose quickly through the ranks, making commander at age 27. During his time in the army, he served in Chengdu, before being sent to the Shenyang Military Region in 1970.
Wang Jianlin’s Business Career
After 17 years in the army, in 1986 Wang started working as the office administrator for the Xigang District in the city of Dalian. His big break there came in 1988, when he was transferred to a failing state-owned builder of residential apartment blocks, Xigang Residential Development. According to his own account, he secured an $80,000 loan with the help of an old army buddy and returned the company to profitability. In 1992, the company went public as one of the first in a pilot program. Wang was promoted to general manager and changed the name to Dalian Wanda. [Source: Wikipedia, New York Times]
Wanda was one of China’s first shareholding companies. Michael Forsythe wrote in the New York Times:Over the next decade, Mr. Wang oversaw its privatization, emerging as its majority owner. The mayor of Dalian for much of that time was Bo Xilai, a politician who was the son of an influential party elder and who would rise to the Politburo before falling from power in a stunning corruption and murder scandal in 2012. Mr. Wang was an extraordinary benefactor to Dalian during Mr. Bo’s tenure, buying the city’s soccer team, which helped make it a national champion, and donating tens of millions of dollars to build schools. [Source: Michael Forsythe, New York Times, April 28, 2015]
“Since Mr. Bo’s fall, Mr. Wang has sought to distance himself from him. In a recent interview, he said he struggled during those years because he refused to pay bribes and did not get along with Mr. Bo. That limited his access to land, he said, which Mr. Bo’s administration would not sell him. “We still made money, but it wasn’t a pleasant time, ” Mr. Wang told Bloomberg Markets magazine.
“Because the state retains formal ownership of all land in China, those who want to build on it must have the state’s blessing. Local governments have depended for years on the sale of long-term rights to develop land to finance their operations. But who gets which parcels, and at what price, is as much a political decision as an economic one. Mr. Wang says his company is so good at delivering benefits to the cities where it builds that local governments now compete for his business and he turns down more than two out of every three proposals. “We thus can take the initiative, and we have the bargaining power, ” he told the students at Harvard. That means he acquires land at less than half the cost to his competitors, he added.
“Even as property prices set records in China, the price that Dalian Wanda paid for access to land fell by more than 40 percent from 2011 to 2014, according to its I.P.O. prospectus. Wang Yongping, vice chairman of the China Commercial Real Estate Association, said local officials were eager to work with Wanda because of the tax revenue its projects bring them and because it has a reputation for getting things done fast. The company can finish a Wanda Plaza at what it calls Wanda Speed, or within 18 months. “Chinese government officials love to have achievements when they are in office, ” Wang Yongping said. “Eighteen months might determine whether they can become a district chief or a provincial party secretary.”
Wang Jianlin’s Extraordinary Success
Michael Forsythe wrote in the New York Times: “It was September 2012, and students at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard were spellbound by an unusual lecturer, a short, plain-talking man with close-set eyes and a prominent widow’s peak. “In China, it’s not easy for a company, especially a private company, to be successful and grow, ” he said through an interpreter. “The hardships they face are many times greater than in the United States.” The speaker that afternoon was Mr. Wang, and despite the hardships that he described, he was on a remarkable winning streak. [Source: Michael Forsythe, New York Times, April 28, 2015]
“Months earlier, Mr. Wang had purchased AMC Entertainment Holdings, the second-largest theater chain in the United States.By year’s end, his empire in China would include 66 Wanda Plazas and 980 cinema screens. Within a year, he would break ground on an $8 billion movie studio and theme park in the coastal city of Qingdao, flying in stars such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman and John Travolta to celebrate. With success came the familiar trappings of the megarich. Mr. Wang bought a Picasso painting at auction for $28.2 million. His wife socialized with Prince Albert of Monaco. His son hired a top Korean pop group to perform at his 27th birthday party.
“Not content with just owning a yacht, Mr. Wang bought the British company that makes the luxury boats seen in James Bond films. In January, his company announced it was buying a stake in a Spanish soccer club. “He is a force of nature, ” said Jeffrey Katzenberg, the chief executive of DreamWorks Animation, who has known Mr. Wang for three years. “He is a very, very strong personality, and he is extremely confident about what he is doing.”
Wang Jianlin and His Multi-Front, Hard Ball Tactics
Wang developed his business and made his initial fortune under Bo Xilai when the now-disgraced and imprisoned communist official was mayor of Dalian. Although Bo Xilai had many enemies in the regime that currently runs China, Wang has been able to somehow cozy up to them and get their support for his projects.
Stanley Rosen wrote in the Nikkei Asian Review: “What he has been trying to do is to make himself indispensable to the party leadership in the promotion of the Chinese brand and Beijing's "going global" strategy. The idea is that as China's richest man and a strong patriot, he will be too big to fail without damaging Beijing's interest in spreading Chinese culture and pro-China messages abroad. However, by becoming a lightning rod for criticism among the political class in the U.S., he is providing such strong ammunition to his enemies that he may in fact become a liability to the leadership. [Source:Stanley Rosen, Nikkei Asian Review, January 7, 2016; Rosen is a professor of political science at the University of Southern California and co-editor of "Art, Politics and Commerce in Chinese Cinema" and the upcoming "Soft Power with Chinese Characteristics: China's Campaign for Hearts and Minds" (Routledge).
“In addition to the political baggage Wang carries at home, Wanda has demonstrated a heavy-handedness in using its position as the owner of China's largest theater chain to punish Huayi Brothers, one of its main rivals in the film industry, in a feud over the poaching of key executives. After Wanda limited the number of screens showing "I Am Not Madame Bovary," the latest film by Feng Xiaogang, China's most popular director accused Wanda of attempting "to weaken its competition so that it can eventually buy them up and fold them into its rapidly expanding global entertainment empire." The feud between Feng and Wanda became so ugly that even the official People's Daily weighed in and it hinted at a kind of vindictiveness that Wang's American critics would not find reassuring.
“Within China, Wang has made it clear that as a businessman, he feels that he can speak with Trump in a language Trump would understand. He has said that the U.S. Congress is just a place for empty words including "crazy talk" unrepresentative of the incoming administration's views and can be safely ignored.Suggesting a veiled threat, or perhaps an opening gambit between two dealmakers, Wang has asked Chris Dodd, the chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America and a former senator, to tell Trump that Wanda has invested more than $10 billion in the U.S. and employs more than 20,000 people who might "have nothing to eat" if Chinese investment were to be curbed. He pointedly noted that U.S. films are increasingly reliant on the growing Chinese market for financial success.
“Wang is fighting a multi-front war in China and the U.S. while acting as if he speaks for the Chinese government. Despite his claims when speaking to Americans that he is simply a businessman who wants to make money, such arrogance feeds into the narrative of American critics that he is representing China, not just himself. Wang's attempted direct, high-profile engagement with the president-elect is unlikely to play well in either China or the U.S., likely inflicting fatal damage to his dream of owning a major American studio.
Wang Jianlin Relationship with Relatives of Chinese Government Leaders
Michael Forsythe wrote in the New York Times: “There is an aspect of Wang’s relationship with the authorities that Mr. Wang never raises in interviews and that has gone unreported in the many accounts of his success published in China and abroad: Relatives of some of the nation’s most powerful politicians and their business associates own significant stakes in his company. An extensive review of corporate records filed with the government identified several such investments made from 2007 to 2011, when Wanda was privately held and rarely sold shares to outsiders. [Source: Michael Forsythe, New York Times, April 28, 2015]
“Among those given an early chance to buy a stake in his company was Qi Qiaoqiao, an active investor who is the elder sister of China’s current president, Xi Jinping. (She sold or transferred her shares in the company in October 2013 to a longtime business associate.) Other early investors included a business partner of the daughter of former Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, and relatives of two other members of the ruling Politburo at the time, Jia Qinglin and Wang Zhaoguo, according to the records and interviews with family members and business associates.
“Together, their stakes in Wang Jianlin’s real estate division, Dalian Wanda Commercial Properties, were valued at $1.1 billion when it held an initial public offering in Hong Kong in December 2014 . Their shares in Mr. Wang’s cinema subsidiary were valued at $17.2 million when it listed separately in January 2015. Their holdings in both companies are worth more than $1.5 billion now.
“There is no indication that any of the politicians whose relatives and business associates owned shares in Wanda intervened on the company’s behalf in any of its dealings with the government. Nor is there evidence that any of the politicians personally benefited from the windfall that these investors reaped. In public remarks, Wang often uses the same phrase to describe how he manages his relationship with the authorities: “Stay close to the government and distant from politics.” “It’s a fact that China’s economy is government-led, and the real estate industry depends on approvals, so if you say you can ignore the government in this business, I’d say that’s impossible, ” Mr. Wang told state television in a February interview. “I’d say it’s hypocritical and fake to say that. … But at the same time, for example, we don’t pay bribes.”
Wanda Paper Trail to Leads to Beijing Elite
Michael Forsythe wrote in the New York Times: “In July 2007, Mr. Wang had built only a handful of Wanda Plazas. He had yet to make his first billion dollars, and few outside China had heard of him or his company. The Hurun Rich List, which tracks the net worth of the wealthiest people in China, ranked him 148th. But late that month, a newly formed firm in Beijing, Minghao Holdings, acquired a 2.5 percent stake in Mr. Wang’s flagship company, Wanda Group, becoming its largest external shareholder, according to corporate records. There was only one other outside shareholder at the time, a local real estate company in Dalian run by a friend. [Source: Michael Forsythe, New York Times, April 28, 2015]
“Then, two months later, another newly established firm in Beijing, Wugufeng Investment Consulting, took a 1.53 percent stake in the main company that Mr. Wang used to hold his shares in Wanda Group, becoming its fifth shareholder, the records show. The documents do not indicate why the two Beijing firms were invited to become early investors in Mr. Wang’s business. But the paper trail from the companies leads to relatives of two men sitting at the time on the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo: Jia Qinglin, a longtime party boss of the Beijing municipality who ranked fourth in the party leadership, and Wang Zhaoguo, a senior legislator who was the leading force behind a landmark law providing legal protections for private property.
“Wang Zhaoguo’s son, Wang Xinyu, was the controlling shareholder of the first firm, which later transferred its stake in Wanda to a young woman named Yang Xin, the records show. Ms. Yang is the Politburo member’s niece, according to Wang Zhao’an, a cousin who serves as party chief in the family’s home village in Hebei Province. The owner of the second firm is listed in the records as Pan Yongbin, 63, who shares a business address, staff and phone numbers with a Beijing investment firm run by Mr. Jia’s son-in-law, Li Botan. Mr. Pan is also listed as a board member of several firms owned by Mr. Li, including his main investment company.
“As Wanda prospered in the years that followed, the value of these early stakes skyrocketed. The firm controlled by Wang Zhaoguo’s son paid less than $500,000 for its stake, according to Wanda’s filings with the government, though the firm’s own records do not show the transaction. The documents are more complete for the second firm, showing a payment of less than $200,000 for its stake. Those two stakes are now worth more than $640 million and $250 million. Neither Politburo member was in a position to directly set the price or approve the sale of land-use rights to Wanda. But party institutions under the two men have showered Wang Jianlin with public recognition.
“Some of the individuals given an early chance to invest in Wanda are difficult to identify. One of them, Jin Yi, acquired a stake in 2009 that is now worth about $250 million. But the address on her identity card is incomplete, and her name is not included on the official registry of residents in the neighborhood listed. Corporate records indicate, however, that Ms. Jin is a business associate of Wen Ruchun, the daughter of Wen Jiabao, the prime minister from 2003 to 2013. Ms. Jin is listed as one of three partners in a Beijing real estate firm alongside Lily Chang, an alias used by Ms. Wen.
Wang Jianlin Honored by the Chinese Government
Forsythe wrote in the New York Times: “In March 2008, Mr. Wang was one of only three mainland billionaires named to the standing committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress, a national advisory body, led by Mr. Jia, that is made up of people whom the party leadership deems influential. The appointment amounted to a seal of approval by top party leaders, said one Chinese businessman who serves on a similar body and spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his position. In June 2007, Mr. Wang was also named an outstanding private entrepreneur by a party-run industry association, the first of five awards bestowed upon him over the next four years from groups led by or associated with Wang Zhaoguo. [Source: Michael Forsythe, New York Times, April 28, 2015]
“Honors like these can signal to local officials and potential business partners that their recipients are well connected. “At least within China, people will be much more willing to do business with you, and much less likely to offend you, ” said Victor Shih, a scholar at the University of California, San Diego.
“After the global financial crisis in late 2008, China’s property market took a nose dive. Real estate stocks in Shanghai ended the year down 65 percent. But Wanda had a banner year, breaking ground on seven new Wanda Plaza complexes — setting a record — and propelling Wang Jianlin to 20th on the Hurun list of China’s richest people, with a fortune estimated at $2.3 billion.
Wang Jianlin and Xi Jinping’s Sister
In 2009, Wanda distributed shares to outsiders again, privately selling an 8.5 percent stake in the company. Forsythe wrote: “Among the eight new investors was a Beijing firm owned through a network of holding companies by Qi Qiaoqiao, the sister of Xi Jinping, and her husband, Deng Jiagui. Ms. Qi and Mr. Xi are members of a privileged elite consisting of the offspring of senior party officials. Their now deceased father, Xi Zhongxun, was a military comrade of Mao and later became a vice premier and a pioneer of economic reform. Ms. Qi worked in a variety of political and military posts during her career before becoming a businesswoman. During that time, her younger brother, Mr. Xi, was working his way up through the ranks in provincial government posts. [Source: Michael Forsythe, New York Times, April 28, 2015]
“It is not known why Ms. Qi and her husband were offered the chance to invest in Wanda. By 2009, she was already a wealthy investor with business relationships across the country. Meanwhile, her brother had become China’s vice president and was the consensus candidate to become the party’s next leader. Records show that Ms. Qi and Mr. Deng began selling off or transferring hundreds of millions of dollars in investments in 2012 as President Xi embarked on a high-profile crackdown on official corruption. The motivation behind this sell-off is unclear but it had the effect of reducing her brother’s political vulnerability as his campaign targeted thousands of officials. In many cases, the couple sold their investments to individuals with no clear connection to them.
“But the shares in Wanda — valued at $240 million now, up from the $28.6 million the couple paid for them in 2009-were transferred to a longtime business associate on October 8, 2013. The records give no indication of the price paid by the business associate, who has served the couple in various corporate posts for more than a decade. Another new shareholder in Wanda was an investment fund owned in part and managed by a subsidiary of Tsinghua Holdings, the investment arm of Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University. At the time, the top official at Tsinghua Holdings was Hu Haifeng, the son of Hu Jintao, then China’s president. There is no indication Hu Haifeng personally benefited from or held any shares in Wanda himself.
Wang Jianlin, Defender of China
Forsythe wrote: “Seated between Lloyd Blankfein, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, and Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister of Britain, Wang Jianlin had little to say through much of a panel discussion at the 2014 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the annual gathering of the wealthy and powerful. But when a speaker suggested that China’s focus on territorial disputes diminished its influence in Asia, the billionaire bristled. “This is a discussion on economics today and shouldn’t delve into politics, ” Mr. Wang snapped. “You are publicly saying bad things about China — at the very least, I don’t think this is very polite.”[Source: Michael Forsythe, New York Times, April 28, 2015]
“As his fortune has climbed and his investments have stretched overseas, Mr. Wang has emerged as an outspoken advocate for his homeland. In interviews and speeches, he tends to present himself as the pragmatic face of big business in China, delivering a soothing message of opportunity to foreign audiences anxious about the country’s rise. “Wang Jianlin is a perfect instrument for that from the party’s point of view, ” said Joseph Nye, the Harvard professor who coined the term “soft power” and was the panelist scolded by Mr. Wang at Davos.
“Mr. Wang is effective in part because he is no longer simply a Chinese real estate developer. As Beijing sought to cool its property sector in recent years, he diversified by shifting investments abroad and into the culture and entertainment sector, including his network of movie theaters, which became the world’s largest in 2012 with the purchase of AMC’s 4,000-plus screens in the United States. The strategy coincided with a policy push by the Chinese leadership to expand the nation’s cultural influence both overseas and at home, where younger generations have increasingly turned to Western music, television and films.
Wanda’s Expansion in the 2010s
Forsythe wrote: “A communiqué issued by the party’s Central Committee in October 2011 cited an “urgency for China to strengthen its cultural soft power and global cultural influence.” “After this document, Wanda started to put a lot of effort into developing the cultural industry, ” said Zhang Lihua, a scholar at the Tsinghua-Carnegie Center for Global Policy in Beijing. Investors connected to senior party leaders were able to get in early on Wanda’s move. In December 2010, the investment firm of Mr. Jia’s son-in-law acquired a $9 million stake in Wanda’s cinema subsidiary, records show. As of Monday, the stake was worth $131 million. “The records also show another early investment that same month by an investment fund run by New Horizon, a private equity firm co-founded by Mr. Wen’s son, Winston Wen. In April 2015 that stake was valued at $526 million.[Source: Michael Forsythe, New York Times, April 28, 2015]
“The Central Committee’s decision resulted in new policies that benefited real estate companies such as Wanda. Local governments, for example, were told to prioritize the sale of land-use rights to companies that built projects that promote Chinese culture. And state-owned banks were told to offer loans for cultural undertakings at home and abroad. The state export-import bank agreed to help finance Wanda’s overseas investments, backing its acquisition of AMC.
“In addition to investing in the movie industry, Wanda has opened a series of amusement parks that promote Chinese culture, including one that features a building in the shape of a Chinese teapot. Mr. Wang says it will compete with a Disneyland under construction in Shanghai. “No matter how good Disney is, it is still American culture, ” he said after the groundbreaking ceremony last year. “We hope to use Chinese culture.” Wanda also British superyacht maker Sunseeker and stakes in the Tokyo, London and New York marathons.
“Xu Han, a scholar at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the company, said Wanda’s overseas expansion was driven in part by Beijing’s desire to see the nation’s premier companies build a presence abroad. But he said the firm was more interested in profit than in directly influencing public opinion about China. “The central government’s objective is very clear, ” he said. “To have a very successful Chinese company is good for China.”
Wanda Buys Major American Movie Theater Chain AMC
In May 2012, China’s Dalian Wanda Group's agreed to pay $2.6 billion for the AMC cinema chain, which at the time had 5,034 screens in 346 multiplex locations in the U.S. and Canada.. The biggest theater chain at the time was Regal Entertainment, which had 522 theaters with 6,580 screens.
Richard Verrier and David Pierson wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “The deal — which pairs China's biggest theater operator with the second-largest chain in the U.S.— marks the largest investment to date by a Chinese company in the U.S. entertainment industry. AMC is owned by Apollo Investment Fund, Carlyle Group and other investors who bought the company in 2004 for $1.7 billion. [Source: Richard Verrier and David Pierson, Los Angeles Times, May 22, 2012]
Some analysts have questioned how the deal benefits Wanda, noting that AMC is a highly leveraged theater circuit. Wanda is assuming $1.9 billion in debt to acquire AMC at a time when theater admissions in the U.S. and Canada have been in a long-term decline. As for the growing Chinese market, Wanda's ownership of AMC may have no effect on the distribution of American movies in China, where the government maintains tight controls on the number of foreign movies it allows into the country. "I'm kind of scratching my head on it," said James Marsh, an entertainment industry analyst at Piper Jaffray & Co. "I don't see the strategic synergies of the deal. I think this is more of a vanity purchase than anything else."
By creating the world's largest theater company, however, Wanda could use its size to negotiate favorable terms with major Hollywood studios in the world's two largest film markets. Wang Jianlin, told reporters in Beijing that Wanda would invest as much as $500 million to upgrade operations and reduce debt at the Kansas-City-Missouri-based chain and keep AMC's management team in place.
The New York Times reported: “Any deal, whether for the entire company or for a major stake, would probably put a current value of roughly $1.5 billion on AMC. Founded in 1920 by three brothers with a single Missouri theater, AMC, was a leader in building complexes to show more than one movie at a time. AMC is known for having better locations than some of its rivals, which include Cinemark, the third-largest chain. Six of last year’s 10 top-grossing theaters belonged to AMC. [Source: Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes, New York Times, May 7, 2012]
Dalian Wanda Buys Legendary Entertainment and Dick Clark for $4.5 Billion
In 2016, Dalian Wanda bought Legendary Entertainment, makers of “Jurassic World,” “The Dark Knight”, “Inception” and “Straight Outta Compton” for $3.5 billion Ben Fritz and Laurie Burkitt wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “In the largest China-Hollywood deal to date, conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group Co. has agreed to acquire production and finance company Legendary Entertainment for $3.5 billion in cash. The deal significantly expands Wanda’s presence in the global entertainment business, as it now owns one of the largest independent movie companies in Hollywood. “Maybe in the future we will acquire a bigger group. It is possible because we want to have a bigger position in the global movie industry,” Wanda Chairman Wang Jianlin said at a news conference in Beijing. [Source: Ben Fritz and Laurie Burkitt, Wall Street Journal, January 12, 2016]
“Though not a studio with distribution capabilities such as Time Warner Inc.’s Warner Bros., Legendary has co-financed dozens of movies with partners. More recently, it began producing its own films, with a mixed box-office record. In 2015 it produced the flops including “Seventh Son” and “Crimson Peak.” However, some of its films, including “Godzilla” and “Pacific Rim,” have done particularly well in China, and the company is focused more on such monster movies going forward. Legendary also has small, but growing, television and digital divisions. Legendary created a series of films to follow up “Godzilla,” as well as a big-screen adaptation of the videogame “Warcraft” and a Chinese co-production titled “The Great Wall,” starring Matt Damon, which turned out to be a colossal flop. .
In October 2016, China's Dalian Wanda agreed to a $1 billion takeover of Dick Clark Productions, the company founded by the famous rock’n roll television host that runs the Golden Globe awards, Miss America pageants, the Academy of Country Music Awards and the Billboard Music Awards. [Source: Reuters, November 4, 2016]
Wanda Theme Parks and Film Studio
Wanda Dalian opened Qingdao Wanda Film studio outside Qingdai in the eastern province of Shandong in April 2018. At that time Steve Dickinson of China Film Insider wrote: The commercial part of the project includes a large retail mall, three separate amusement parks (theme park, water park, movie theme park, all indoors for year round operation), at least 6 separate hotels, two large exhibition centers, a large marina and a massive number of condos. The entire project is 2500 mu (400 acres, 162 hectares). This is huge! The location is on the same side of the main road as the main sales buildings, away from the ocean, running up to the mountains to the west. This is a different location from what had originally been proposed. Thirty separate studio buildings have been built with another ten under construction and construction due to finish in October. The individual studios range from 10,000 square meters to 15,000 square meters. [Source: Steve Dickinson, China Film Insider, April 16, 2018]
When the plan for the studio was announced, Dalian Wanda said it plans to invest $8.2 billion to build an entertainment park in Qingdao that would include a movie museum, wax museum, exhibition center, yacht club, hotels, along with a film complex with 20 studios including the world’s largest studio at 10,000 square meters. Nicole Kidman and Leonardo DiCaprio were flown to Qingdao for the groundbreaking ceremony. [Source: Bloomberg News, September 22, 2013]
In 2018, Wanda said it would build a US$1.74 billion theme park in Yan’an (Yanan, Yenan), regarded as the cradle of the Chinese Communist revolution to cash in on ‘red tourism’. Yan’an is where Mao Zedong set up the Chinese Communist Party headquarters in 1934 after the Long March and ran a shadow government there until the People’s Republic of China was established in 1949. Zheng Yangpeng wrote in the South China Morning Post: “The theme park, in the loess plateau of Shaanxi province near Gansu and Shanxi, will feature shopping malls, indoor parks, theatres and hotels built in the style of the 1930s when the prefectural city was used as the headquarters of the Communist Party. The project, measuring 1.26 square kilometers in size, will begin construction in the first quarter of 2019 for completion by the first half of 2021 in time for the ruling party’s centenary celebration, Wanda said. [Source: Zheng Yangpeng, South China Morning Post, December 14, 2018]
The project marks a return by the developer into the limelight, after his US$9.4 billion disposal of hotels and tourism assets in 2017 to rivals Sunac China and Guangzhou R&F Properties to pare Wanda’s borrowings. In October 2018, Wanda disposed of its last remaining stake in its tourism projects for 6.28 billion yuan. Since selling its assets and emerging from regulators’ scrutiny, Wanda has hewed close to the Chinese government’s preferred state agenda. It announced a 20 billion yuan tourism project in the Gansu provincial capital of Lanzhou city in northwest China, a step-off point along China’s ancient Silk Road.
According to Bloomberg: Wang’s fortune took a dive as China started to crack down on such expansion and capital outflows. His wealth has shrunk to about $14 billion from a peak of $46 billion in 2015, when he was crowned Asia’s richest person, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. “Wanda gained surprisingly little from its period of unconstrained investment opportunity, ” said Kaiyuan Capital’s Silvers. “The company has since been quicker to shed assets than other conglomerates, but it still has far to go.” The asset-light strategy would help generate sustainable recurring rental income for Wanda Commercial Management, the “cash cow” of the group, said Chloe He, corporate-rating director at Fitch Ratings. It can also prevent the company from committing heavy capital expenditure and taking on too much debt, she added. “This is going to be very helpful for them to deleverage in the future, provided they don’t invest in something else, ” He said. [Source: Shirley Zhao, Venus Feng and Rebecca Choong Wilkins, Bloomberg, March 16, 2021]
Wanda was hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021, which caused people to curtail going out and attending movies, the bread and butter of many of Wanda’s businesses. By early 2021, Wang lost about $32 billion of his personal fortune in less than six years — the most for any billionaire in that period — and didn’t even figure among China’s top 30 richest people. Bloomberg reported: As Wang seeks to cut the group’s total debt from 362 billion yuan ($56 billion) and turn his entertainment-to-property empire around, he’s facing skeptical bond investors. Braced for a wall of maturing onshore notes peaking this year, some of Wanda’s dollar bonds were among the first to tumble in January, 2021, month, when a broader decline hit the Asian credit market. The selloff, partly triggered by concerns over the looming payments, came as a warning from investors eager to see how Wang will manage to steer his group clear of the debt risks that convulsed peers such as HNA Group Co., China Evergrande Group and Anbang Group Holdings Co. “The group’s liquidity is a key consideration for investors, ” said Dan Wang, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. A representative for Wanda didn’t respond to requests for comment on the debt risks.
“Wang is still shedding some of those assets. The latest came in January 2021, when Wanda gave up control of AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc., with its stake now representing less than 10 percent of the world’s largest movie-theater chain. Despite the disposals following a government crackdown on credit-fueled expansion, Wanda Group’s debt as of June ballooned to the highest since 2017. The pandemic has only added to the woes, dealing a blow to its cinemas, malls, theme parks, hotels and sports events.
“As China stabilizes its economy after containing the virus, the reopening of movie theaters and malls is providing Wang the much-needed time to steady his ship. He’s pressing ahead with a strategy he’s advocated for years, called the “asset-light” model, to reduce leverage. That means spending less by cutting back on land purchases. Dalian Wanda Commercial Management Group Co., one of the world’s biggest mall operators that accounts for almost half of the group’s revenue, will stop buying plots starting this year and license its brand to partners instead, the company’s President Xiao Guangrui told mainland media in September. “Wanda had no real alternative to its new asset-light strategy, ” said Brock Silvers, chief investment officer at Kaiyuan Capital in Hong Kong, who doesn’t hold any Wanda unit shares or bonds. “The company’s debts were unsustainable.”
“The effect of the pandemic on Wanda has been astounding. “Movie producer and cinema operator Wanda Film Holding Co. said it may have racked up a record $1 billion in net loss in 2020. Despite becoming a favorite in the recent Reddit-fueled share rally, AMC warned several times it was near the brink of insolvency and reported its worst-ever annual loss as revenue plunged 77 percent. Wanda Commercial Management said sales and profit fell nearly 50 percent in the first nine months of 2020.
“Even if Wanda’s businesses tide over the global health crisis, there’s no certainty creditors will be kind after the developments at other indebted Chinese conglomerates such as HNA, Evergrande and lately at Suning Appliance Group Co. In an offering circular in September 2021, Wanda told investors that the group’s level of indebtedness may “adversely affect” some operations. The conglomerate is also facing tighter credit rules in the real estate sector as Chinese regulators look to curb financial risk.
Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Forbes
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated October 2021