Four gigantic, Chinese characters are aligned on a hill overlooking a seaside film studio complex, in a nod to the fabled Hollywood sign, the American cultural icon in Los Angeles.
Except this is northern China’s port city of Qingdao, where Dalian Wanda Group Co., a real-estate, retail and entertainment conglomerate, is opening its doors to an audacious 50 billion yuan ($7.9 billion) world-class film production hub, called the Oriental Movie Metropolis, or Dong Fang Ying Du.
The project boasts the world’s largest studios, a commercial complex covered with giant portraits of Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and Bruce Lee. There’s also a reclaimed island full of hotels, condos, two theaters and a yacht club.
It all adds up to China’s largest and glitziest effort yet to attract Hollywood filmmakers to work their magic using domestic film-production studios — the sort of move that can enhance the nation’s “soft power” and cultural reach on the global stage. For Wanda’s billionaire chairman Wang Jianlin, who has dialed back his ambitions to build an entertainment empire thanks to debt pressure, a lot is riding on the success of the complex.
On Saturday, executives from major studios in Hollywood and China came to Qingdao, a city best known for its namesake beer, for the opening ceremony. It comes as the Beijing-based conglomerate has seen its debt-fueled, global shopping spree curtailed by the Chinese government.
As Wang, 63, presided over the festivities, he said it will become a new hub for global film making.
Making the complex a global magnet for film-making will be a challenge, according to Sun Hengqin, chief president assistant of Wanda Film Group and the head of the movie metropolis. “We have yet to figure out a clear strategy to attract Hollywood and other foreign filmmakers,” Sun said. “Yes, we’d love them to come and shoot their films here, and we will study what are the factors that prevent them from coming and improve our services accordingly.”
The studios have been partially open since the second half of 2016 and have hosted the production of 10 films. Other than Wanda’s Legendary Entertainment, no big Hollywood studio has produced a movie in Qingdao. Most of the productions have been Chinese films, albeit some of them with big budgets, such as “Feng Shen,” a 3 billion yuan trilogy based on an ancient Chinese mythological novel.
“We plan to position ourselves first for the domestic market before going overseas,” said Sun, a former local government official. “Feng Shen,” he said, will occupy half of the studios’ 30 sound stages for the next two years and that five to six other Chinese films have committed to using the facility this year.
The entire complex spans an area of 376 hectares (929 acres), according to a Wanda statement in 2013, when the project broke ground with Hollywood glitterati such as Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Kidman and now-disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein.
Wang, once the richest man in China, has spent big in his bid to become a movie industry mogul, starting with his acquisitions of AMC Entertainment Holdings Inc. and Legendary. Now, he’s in retrenchment mode after debts ballooned and the government began scrutinizing his business empire. Last July, Wanda sold a majority stake in Oriental Movie Metropolis to Sunac China Holdings Ltd., a Chinese real-estate developer, together with 12 theme parks across the country.
Wanda still retains branding and management rights to the Qingdao studios and the 12 other projects. However, the operation has had its share of speed bumps. The studios have had seven different CEOs since 2015, and most of the international staff hired to help bring operations on par with Hollywood standards have left, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named discussing sensitive matters. A Wanda official who declined to be named said it took time to find the right team and that the Qingdao studios are open to the world with or without international staff.
There’s no lack of film and TV work in China, the world’s second-largest box office and the world’s biggest producer of TV dramas. The Qingdao studios do have one big competitive edge: a 5 billion yuan incentive program jointly funded by Wanda and the Qingdao government, according to April Ye, China Chief Executive Officer of Film Finance Inc., a California-based company that’s worked with Wanda and helps independent filmmakers raise funds.
“This is the first time in China that authorities and the private sector join hands to invest such enormous resources for the development of the film industry,” she said. “There’s a big opportunity to set things right from the beginning, as well as lots of challenges to get there.”
Another positive development: Residential condo sales at the development could get a boost from a robust local property market.
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