Dalian Wanda is King Kong in Hollywood


King Kong has returned as the giant ape with a tender heart in Kong: Skull Island, a revival of the old Hollywood franchise that hit number one at the US box office last weekend. It is a relief for Legendary Entertainment, the film’s producer, and Legendary’s owner Dalian Wanda, the Chinese property conglomerate.

Wanda needs some good news after the failure on Friday of its $1bn deal to acquire Dick Clark Productions, the US television group behind the Golden Globes and other award shows. It does not want to turn into another classic Hollywood character: the foreign investor with stars in its eyes that attempts to muscle its way into La La Land and ends up being fleeced.

There are dual risks for the Chinese companies that have lined up recently to pump money into Hollywood, including a copper processing company from Anhui province that fancied breaking into the movies. Not only could they be humiliated in US entertainment, but they could hurt their business at home by alienating Beijing.

This was made clear on Saturday when Zhong Shan, China’s commerce minister, described some of the $220bn of foreign deals struck last year by its companies as “blind and irrational investment”, adding that some of them had “a negative impact on our national image”. It is not the kind of review you can afford to get in a country where political connections are vital.

Wanda is not yet in disgrace but, as owner of both Legendary and the AMC cinema chain, it is the most prominent Chinese company in Hollywood and thus most in the spotlight. It is time for Wang Jianlin, its billionaire founder, to practise some patience, rather than continuing to bang loudly at the gates of the big six film studios in Los Angeles in search of another acquisition.

Mr Wang has so far adopted the same Kong-like bluntness in entertainment as he has in Chinese property, building a swath of Wanda Plaza shopping and leisure centres across the country. Having made an international cinema chain out of AMC in the US and Odeon and Nordic Cinema in Europe, he says openly that he would be “a happy buyer” of a studio such as Paramount.

If he carries on thumping, he may well get his way eventually. Sony Pictures, with which Wanda struck a financing deal in September, is going through a difficult phase — one of several since Sony made the first Asian advance on Hollywood in 1989 by buying Columbia Pictures. Slower growth last year in China, the world’s second-largest film market, has hurt others too.

He holds a strong position in some ways. Wanda has plenty of capital, which he can use as he wishes. He can offer preferential access to China, which is a restricted market: there is a cap on the number of Hollywood films that can be shown there each year but it does not limit Chinese co-productions. Studios also get a higher share of Chinese ticket revenues on co-productions.

But Hollywood does not operate solely on brute force and deep pockets, as others have found before. It matters as much whom you know, and whether you are trusted by its closest insiders. It has a history of enticing wealthy newcomers but never quite delivering them their promised rewards.

Mr Wang should be familiar with such intrigue as a developer in China. He has profited by remaining close to local authorities since building his business in Dalian when Bo Xilai, the disgraced former politburo member, was the city’s mayor. He has deep roots in the ruling communist party reaching back to the 1930s, when his father took part in Mao Zedong’s Long March.

It brings opportunities in China but he lacks such contacts in Hollywood. Legendary faced setbacks after Wanda acquired a majority stake for a hefty $3.5bn in 2015 and its founder Thomas Tull retired in January. The $1bn that Wanda was due to pay for Dick Clark was also seen by rivals as high.

Mr Wang’s big difficulty is that he is seeking something that does not yet exist: a global film market. Hollywood’s reliance on financing from China has led to more films being made there and more Chinese performers, such as the Kong actress Jing Tian, on screen. But while the world is accustomed to US heroes, American film-goers have little appetite for Chinese fables.

The Great Wall, Legendary’s clunky effort to bridge the gap with a monster action film set in the Song dynasty starring Matt Damon, did poorly at the US box office in February. That in turn clouds the prospects for Wanda’s Oriental Movie Metropolis, a big studio and resort in Qingdao where it was partly filmed, and to where it wants to draw more global productions.

There is still a prize if Mr Wang can wait. Aynne Kokas, author of Hollywood Made in China, notes that Xi Jinping, China’s president, craves the soft power of “Chinese films that everyone in the world wants to see”. It is balanced at the moment with a desire for companies not to waste money, or make fools of themselves in Hollywood or elsewhere, but the ambition is not dead.

An ill-judged takeover could not only rattle US politicians but irritate Mr Xi as he seeks to reconcile the two. Patience is not one of Mr Wang’s virtues but he must acquire it.