Big Fish: How to Become a Movie Tycoon in China

Lovely smile, chubby figure and a net worth of 8.6 billion dollars: these are the main features (as listed in Forbes) of Wang Jianlin, possibly the richest man in China. After building up his fortune through the Dalian Wanda Group, one of the biggest real estate companies in the country, in 2012 Wang purchased AMC Entertainment, and has now announced his intentions to turn it into Qingdao Movie Metropolis, the most spacious entertainment area in the world. The project includes 20 different movie studios, a celebrity wax museum, a film museum and a whole series of other amenities adding up to 3.7 million square meters.

chinese hollywood

While this sounds as great news for every moviegoer, complications arise when one stops and thinks about the role censorship plays in China. Even though the government seem to be less touchy in some ways (film directors, for example, don’t have to submit screenplays to the central system for approval anymore), every movie is still submitted to a pre-screening. And it’s not just bureaucracy; Avatar was banned in 2009 because it may “possibly incite violence”. Wang claims that at least 50 movies will be produced in the studios every year, together with at least a hundred TV-shows; but no one can tell how they will be affected or influenced by public pressure or if Jianlin is willing to take risks.

But whatever the case may be, Qingdao Movie Metropolis will be in a few years the biggest fish in what now appears as a rather small lake. This summer Hollywood faced six major budget flops, including two in one weekend; the so-called “tent pole” action movies, that need a huge budget and consequently a huge public, seem to have bored the American public. On a different shore but on the same note, Bollywood is not doing so well either: the amount of money spent to film in foreign and exotic locations, which used to reach incredible sums, dropped by a third following the rupee crisis.

This may be one of the reasons why Qingdao’s opening ceremony has attracted not only the Chinese public, but also western actors: movie stars such as Leonardo Di Caprio, Ewan McGregor, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Nicole Kidman have been warmly welcomed on the red carpet and may be embarking in the project. As some journalists tried to bring up the subject of censorship, no one seemed to be really worried about the matter: while John Travolta enthusiastically declared that “this is the healthiest thing that could happen, it infuses life and finance into an industry that needs boosting” (if I were a mean person, I would add that John Travolta also thought Scientology was the healthiest thing for him; but I’m not), actress Kate Beckinsale said that she would personally “not deal” with censorship. Showing up at a formal ceremony doesn’t necessarily mean getting involved, but there are rumours of Di Caprio and Kidman having already signed up with the company; and it doesn’t really look like their presence will bring new light to the censorship problem in the country. Christian Bale, who worked with Chinese director Zhang Yimou, claims that he “learned a whole lot about the process” but that most actors don’t take part in most of the production company’s choices.

The news about Wang’s new investment did not find such enthusiasm between movie directors and producers, namely George Lucas, Steven Spielberg and Steven Soderbergh; the latter recently said in an interview “it’s become absolutely horrible the way the people with the money decide they can fart in the kitchen, to put it bluntly”. Lucas argued that the whole industry will implode when a long series of blockbuster movies come crashing down, but in Qingdao this doesn’t seem to be the case.

And what about Wang? Having served in the People’s Liberation Army (the armed force of the Chinese communist party) for sixteen years, the Big Fish himself seems to be the most serene one on the matter of censorship. When asked his opinion on the relationship between strict government rules and film industry, he answered just like a Zen Master would: “I don’t make the movies, but I think that people are able to film what they want to film these days”. Beautifully expressed.

Qingdao Movie Metropolis will be operative by 2017, and until that moment this veil of surreal naïveté will not be lifted. In the meanwhile, if you’re curious, look out for the latest (and not yet released in the UK) movie produced by Wang’s company: “Man of Tai Chi”, featuring Keanu Reeves as director and main actor. I’ll leave you with that thought, as I run to my flat to write my “What The Hell Happened to Keanu Reeves Anyway?” piece.

[Anna Viceconti]

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