China’s richest man aims to rival Hollywood

QINGDAO, China, Sept 24, 2013 - An ambitious studio complex built by China's richest man will be a major boost for the country's film industry but experts say it needs more than sprawling grounds to rival Hollywood.

Global A-listers Nicole Kidman, Leonardo DiCaprio and Catherine Zeta-Jones showed up on Sunday for the lavish event to showcase plans for the Oriental Movie Metropolis, set to span 376 hectares, in the eastern port city of Qingdao.

The 50 billion yuan (S$10.3 billion) complex will house 20 studios that will turn out 100 films a year, including 30 foreign productions.

Backing the project is China's richest person, Wang Jianlin, whose conglomerate Wanda last year acquired US cinema chain AMC Entertainment to become the world's largest cinema operator.

"I think it's exciting to see Wanda build these facilities. But it takes much more than hard assets and facilities to do good movies," said Robert Cain, who has done business in China since 1987 and is now a partner in a film co-production company.

"There is a huge gap in the skills which remain between China's film industry and Hollywood."

While Beijing is aware of the importance of using its "soft power" overseas, the state tightly controls the film industry and cuts any subject matter that might be politically sensitive.

Rarely do domestic movies attract an international audience - and even Chinese moviegoers have shown lukewarm interest in local offerings.

Although a quota of just 34 foreign films can be shown in the country each year, these made up more than half of Chinese box office sales last year.

However, the first half of 2013 showed a reversal. Ticket sales for Chinese films more than doubled those of the same period the year before, surpassing foreign films for the first time in five years.

At the end of June the Chinese movie "Tiny Times", which depicted the daily life of wealthy Chinese youth, defied expectations by overtaking Hollywood blockbuster "Man of Steel".

But its international success remains in question.

Chinese movies deserve attention if only because the number of moviegoers is so large, said Hawk Koch, a former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which runs the Oscar awards.

"Given the box office in China, the fact that China is going to become the number one box office in the world, we have to pay attention," he said.

But to merit more critical attention, he added, the sector needs "more personal movies that touch people".

"China is kind of known for kung fu movies and action movies, and I think that, in order to be known seriously in the world, they would have to make more intimate movies," he said.

The US film industry would be a huge star to try to outshine, he warned.

"I don't know if anyone will ever compete with Hollywood, because that's been the centre for so many years."

In an effort to grow, some Chinese studios have partnered with foreign counterparts in co-productions, as was the case in the Robert Downey Jr. blockbuster "Iron Man 3".

The Chinese firm Dreams of Dragon Pictures took part in producing the internationally successful "Cloud Atlas", starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry.

The Movie Metropolis complex is set to begin operations in 2016 and will also feature a 3,000-seat theatre and a shopping centre with seven hotels.

Wanda's business interests include retailing and commercial property.

Oscar-winning actor Christoph Waltz, who attended the glitzy unveiling, displayed a wait-and-see attitude.

"Chinese Hollywood? Seems like there is a contradiction in terms," he said.

"Give them a chance."