On Monday evening, the chairman of the Dalian Wanda Group, Wang Jianlin, stood before a group of Hollywood dignitaries and members of the press, and made an impassioned plea. Hollywood, he said, needs to "go back to storytelling!"
"Just depending on technology and special effects," he said, "will not last forever. Tell us a good story."
Although Wang was speaking in Mandarin, his message required no translation for the studio executives and producers who had gathered at LACMA's Bing theater for an elaborate, red-carpet gala in honor of the chairman's visit—one of Hollywood's first glimpses at the man who has been gobbling up American entertainment assets at such a rapid clip that members of Congress recently asked for a DOJ investigation into the company. The Chinese-based conglomerate, whose holdings range from real-estate developments to luxury hotels to sprawling shopping centers and movie complexes, is nearing a deal to buy Dick Clark Productions (producers of the Golden Globe Awards, as well as the Miss America pageant) for about $1 billion. Before that, it made a splash in September when it made what’s considered to be a landmark deal with Sony Pictures that lets Wanda invest in select films Sony’s developing and market them in China. Last year, Wanda purchased Legendary Entertainment, the production company behind such blockbusters as Godzilla and The Hangover, for $3.5 billion.
Indeed, when Wang, China's richest man, made a joke about Hollywood's fixation with sequels and how there are movies in their "ninth franchise," a round of knowing chuckles passed over the room. Hollywood’s power brokers know they’re hooked on pre-sold properties, yet they also appreciated the irony of the comment given that action-packed franchises are what has proven to be most successful thus far in the Chinese film market.
Wang came to America to announce a new film rebate program that Wanda is offering in China, as well as details about the company's new, $8 billion state-of-the-art film production facility in Quingdao. But Wang also took the opportunity to offer an olive branch of sorts to Hollywood in an effort to allay fears that have been growing around Wanda’s preeminence.
Wang's gentle prodding, and repetition of themes like "storytelling" seemed geared to help bridge the cultural gap that exists between Hollywood and China. He presents himself and his company as amicable partners, or "students" eager to learn from Hollywood, which he characterized as "the professor." And American partners like Thomas Tull, Legendary's CEO, were featured in promotional reels echoing these sentiments. Tull will be shooting the next installments of Pacific Rim and Godzilla at Quingdao, and he took to the stage at the end of the event to sign a document stating his commitment to filming in China, along with other film executives, including Patrick Wachsberger, co-chairman of Lionsgate's Motion Picture Group.
Wang also signaled that the world is changing and China will only play a more significant role in global entertainment in the coming years. He cited statistics about how China is on the verge of eclipsing the U.S. box office as the world’s largest. (In 2018, the Chinese box office is expected to reach $10 billion, which is about where the U.S. box office is now.) By 2026, he said, that number will triple.
He also made the business case for American filmmakers adding "more Chinese elements in film." He said, "If you want to profit from this market, you will have to understand the Chinese audience. You have to please them, and win their hearts." Wang made a point of addressing the concerns that China is interested in promoting its own agenda, by adding, "I have no political motivation."
Even more than Wang's words, Monday evening’s event made it clear that China's interest in Hollywood is no passing fancy. The line outside of LACMA before the "show," suggested an Apple launch event. Inside, guests were greeted by hostesses wearing sequined gowns before they were led to their designated seats. A Wanda promotional reel showcased the company's lavish hotels, sports properties, and ubiquitous Wanda "plazas." And speakers were brought to the stage to snippets from the pumping scores of Star Wars and Jurassic Park. Afterwards, guests filed into the museum's courtyard for an elegant cocktail party, followed by a VIP dinner.
In this regard, Wang seemed to be heeding his own advice: It remains to be seen if he's won the hearts of Hollywood. But he seems determined to try to please them.