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China's Wanda Group Branches Out Into Entertainment


The Walt Disney company may have some competition in the world's most populous market. Like many film studios, Disney distributes movies in China. Not only that, the first Disneyland in China is supposed to open next year. There's already one in Hong Kong. But these moves by Disney's global empire are overshadowed by a homegrown entertainment company called the Wanda Group, which plans to build 200 children's theme parks all across China. Clifford Coonan has been closely following the story in the competition for China. He is Asia bureau chief for The Hollywood Reporter. He's in Beijing. Welcome to the program.


INSKEEP: Just the fact that there is an Asia bureau chief at The Hollywood Reporter maybe underlines how important this market is seen as for Hollywood.

COONAN: It's certainly becoming very, very important now for Hollywood because it's expanding so rapidly here and we've just seen films like "Transformers 4" doing very, very big business here. So it's a very important market.

INSKEEP: So the Wanda Group - where did this company come from? How did it start?

COONAN: Well, Wanda Group is a real estate company from the North of China. And it was started by Wang Jianlin, who started a property company there - a shopping mall - and has just expanded at a very, very rapid pace. It has shopping malls in every city, and in each of these shopping malls there's a cinema, which has been one of the reasons that the market is expanding so fast here. So Wanda has sort of moved more into the cinema side with the purchase of AMC two years ago. And now it's getting into all other areas of the film business.

INSKEEP: And is it doing with these children's theme parks that it now plans with some of its real estate, the same thing that Disney does with its properties? In that the movie characters appear in the theme parks, the theme parks promote the movies, everything is connected?

COONAN: That's right. Wanda has commissioned a 52 part animation series that will feature various characters and these characters will be featured in these theme parks, which are called the Wanda Baby King Park. That's my translation from the Chinese.

INSKEEP: So could a domestic company, a Chinese company, end up thumping the American competition for the entertainment market in China?

COONAN: Well, this is always going to be the big question. Chinese people really do like Disney and the success of Disneyland in Hong Kong for example is phenomenal. And a lot of the people going to Hong Kong to the Disney parks are actually from mainland China. Wanda will probably try to position itself slightly differently - maybe not quite as ambitious as Disney, but at the same time, he is hoping to build 200 of these. It's certainly going to be a theme park force to be reckoned with.

INSKEEP: And you mention the Wanda Group has made acquisitions in the United States. Could you envision a time when a Chinese company could be a serious player in entertainment in the United States and around the world?

COONAN: Well, this is always a big question. When China's economic muscle is going to translate into real (unintelligible) power, real cultural power. There's been rumors for many years that a Chinese company will eventually try and buy a Hollywood studio. And that would really change everything. Everyone is looking for a movie that will work both in China and in the West. This is the Holy Grail in a way. There's no reason why a Chinese company couldn't be a power in the cultural arena.

INSKEEP: Does Wanda have plans to buy more things specifically in the United States?

COONAN: It will be interesting. He's just spent $1.2 billion on a plot in Beverly Hills, which is going to be the headquarters of their U.S. entertainment business. That's a bold move by China's richest man. And it also shows intent that they definitely want to expand in the U.S.

INSKEEP: Clifford Coonan is Asia bureau chief for The Hollywood Reporter. Thanks very much.

COONAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.