Chinese Mogul Buys Dick Clark Productions, His Latest U.S. Purchase

Nov 4, 2016
Originally published on November 8, 2016 12:29 pm

One of China's wealthiest men has been on a buying spree in Hollywood, snapping up cinemas and movie production companies. Now Wang Jianlin, the chairman of the Beijing-based Dalian Wanda Group has acquired another piece of Americana: Dick Clark Productions.

The deal announced Friday gives Wang's company, the Dalian Wanda Group, the rights to star-studded events such as the Golden Globes awards, the American Music Awards, the Miss America pageant, and New Years Rockin Eve in Times Square. Dick Clark Productions has been around since the 1950s when American Bandstand was broadcast on black and white television sets across the country.

It's just the latest big-ticket acquisition for the Chinese mogul. Wanda has bought AMC theatres, the country's 2nd largest cinema chain, for $2.6 billion. It scooped up Legendary Entertainment, one of the biggest movie production companies in Hollywood, for $3.5 billion. Wanda has announced plans to buy Carmike Cinemas for just over $1 billion. If that last deal takes place, it would make Wanda the largest theater operator in the U.S. Wanda is involved in marketing, distributing and investing in films.

"Wanda's just been on a spree," says Marc Ganis, co-founder of Jiaflix, a U.S. firm that helps market films in China. He says Wang, 61, a former commander in the People's Liberation Army, has made it clear he wants one of the "big six" movie studios. He tried to buy Paramount Pictures earlier this year, but that plan unraveled after the controlling shareholder, Viacom, backed out.

"He intends to make Wanda the pre-eminent entertainment company in the world, that is what he has said," says Ganis. "His ambitions and those of Wanda are worldwide, not just focused in China."

A property company in China

Wanda is best known as a commercial property development company, and owns shopping malls and apartment complexes across China. Jeremy Wallace, a China specialist at Cornell University, says Wanda began moving into the entertainment arena in Europe and the U.S. a few years ago.

"The Chinese real estate sector is slowing down. And it makes sense for that firm to try to diversify its assets — to invest abroad, to invest in other types of assets away from the Chinese real estate sector," he says.

Wallace says Wanda is a private company, but it has important connections.

"Most large firms in China, even privately owned firms, have strong connections with individuals in the Chinese Communist Party, as well as the state," he says.

Wang's aggressive deal-making could face a couple of obstacles, including history. This isn't the first time Asian companies have tried to corner the Hollywood market. In the late 1980s, Sony, the Japanese electronic giant, bought Columbia Pictures for $3.4 billion. By the mid 1990s, the company had suffered a huge loss.

Congress pushes back

Wang's rapid acquisitions has also caught the interest of Congress. Sixteen members of the House want the Obama administration to review whether the Chinese acquisitions in Hollywood should be subject to the same scrutiny used to assess sales related to national security, such as an aerospace firm or technology company.

Congressman Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, says there are concerns about propaganda and censorship when selling entertainment companies to the Chinese.

"If you buy Hollywood, you buy influence, you buy the ability to paint a totally false picture, a caricature of the alleged benevolence of the Chinese government, which is anything but," he says.

But Ying Zhu, a specialist on Chinese cinema and media at City University of New York, says Hollywood is already a pro at self-censoring.

"Hollywood is in the business of entertaining, not offending," she says.

She says scenes and characters are often rewritten by American studios so as not to offend a country like China, which has a huge market but only allows the release of about three dozen foreign films per year. Zhu points to the 2012 remake of the movie Red Dawn. She says Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer initially featured Chinese characters as the villains.

"Then [they] realized, 'Wait a minute, we want a Chinese market, so let's just change it.' And then during the post production they spent $1 million in changing Chinese characters into characters from North Korea," she says.

Zhu says that Beijing's influence will inevitably increase the more Chinese companies get involved in Hollywood productions, which could make it harder to get movies about subject like the Dalai Lama or Tianamen Square onto the silver screen.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

A company that bears an iconic name in American television, Dick Clark Productions, has been sold for a billion dollars. The new owner is one of China's wealthiest men, and he's been on a buying spree recently in Hollywood. And that has caught the attention of Congress. NPR's Jackie Northam has the details.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: There is something quintessentially American about Dick Clark Productions. The TV entertainment company brings you star-studded events, such as the American Music Awards.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMERICAN MUSIC AWARDS)

JENNIFER LOPEZ: And this year's music made me want to dance. Do you want to dance with me?

NORTHAM: The Miss America pageant.

(SOUNDBITE OF MISS AMERICA PAGEANT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Miss New York.

(APPLAUSE)

NORTHAM: And it helps millions of people ring in the New Year from Times Square.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Three, two, one. Happy New Year.

NORTHAM: Now, Dick Clark Productions belongs to a Chinese company, the Dalian Wanda group, which has been steadily building up an entertainment empire here in the U.S. It bought AMC Theatres, the country's second-largest cinema chain, and scooped up Legendary Entertainment, one of the biggest movie production companies in Hollywood. The Beijing-based Wanda is marketing, distributing and investing in films.

MARC GANIS: Wanda's just been on a - on a spree.

NORTHAM: Marc Ganis is the co-founder of Jiaflix, a U.S. firm which helps market films in China. He says Wanda's owner, Wang Jianlin, wants one of the big six movie studios. He's already tried to acquire Paramount Pictures.

GANIS: He intends to make Wanda the preeminent entertainment company in the world. That is what he has said. You know, his ambitions and those of Wanda are worldwide, not just focused within China.

NORTHAM: Wanda started off as a commercial property development company and owned shopping malls and apartment complexes across China. Jeremy Wallace, a China specialist at Cornell University, says Wanda began moving into the entertainment arena after the Chinese real estate sector began to slow down.

JEREMY WALLACE: It makes sense for that firm to try to diversify its assets, to invest abroad, to invest in other types of assets away from the Chinese real estate sector.

NORTHAM: Wallace says Wanda is a private company, but with ties to the Chinese government. Wang's aggressive deal-making has caught the interest of Congress. Sixteen members of the House want the Obama administration to review whether the Chinese acquisitions in Hollywood should be subject to more scrutiny. Congressman Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, says there are concerns about propaganda and censorship.

CHRIS SMITH: If you buy Hollywood, you buy influence, you buy the ability to paint a totally false picture, a caricature of the alleged benevolence of the Chinese government, which is anything but.

YING ZHU: Hollywood is in the business of entertaining, not offending.

NORTHAM: Ying Zhu is a specialist on Chinese cinema and media at City University of New York. She says via Skype that Hollywood is already a pro at self-censoring. She says scenes and characters are often rewritten by American studios so as not to offend a country like China, which has a huge market. Zhu points to the 2012 remake of the movie "Red Dawn."

ZHU: They initially tried to feature the Chinese as the bad guy. And then they realized, wait a minute, we want a Chinese market, so let's just change it. So during the post-production, they spent $1 million changing the Chinese characters into characters from North Korea.

NORTHAM: Zhu says that Beijing's influence will inevitably increase the more that Chinese companies get involved in Hollywood productions, which could make it harder to get movies about subjects like the Dalai Lama or Tiananmen Square onto the silver screen. Jackie Northam, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.