China’s yen for fun beckons H’wood

HOLLYWOOD — Golf, of all things, is catching on bigtime in China, providing yet another indication of just how open to Western imports that once-impenetrable society is becoming.

The fad ought to give renewed hope to Hollywood studios, which spent the better part of the ’90s lurching from disappointment to disappointment in that most populous but treacherous of media markets. Indeed, what Chinese regulation didn’t hamper, rampant piracy undermined.

But two Tinseltown congloms are trying to get beyond those hurdles. Universal and Disney plan to break ground on theme parks in that country.

Stealing a beat on its competitor, U unveiled plans last month to erect a movie-themed resort outside Shanghai in a joint venture with two local, if hard-to-pronounce, partners: Waigaoqiao and Jinjiang.

Not that any old theme park is a shoo-in for success there.

China saw more than 1,000 theme parks of various sizes pop up in the ’90s, most of which have shuttered or are now bleeding red ink. The most successful is probably Windows on the World near Hong Kong, which features replicas of the Eiffel Tower and Niagara Falls. The biggest flop: the American Dream Park outside Shanghai, financed by a U.S. consortium based in Cincinnati, which was poorly designed and too American in its content.

Universal will likely own one-third of the Shanghai joint venture and be in charge of managing the site, which may open as early as 2006. An elevated train line is already planned to stop at the park — a good thing since most locals don’t own cars.

Shanghai recently hosted a Tennis Masters tourney and is planning a Formula One racetrack to open in 2004 — further signs of its interest in Western leisure pursuits.

The Mouse House also fenced and parried with mainland officials about a park in Shanghai, but recently put that venture on hold. Instead, it is fast-tracking a resort in Hong Kong for 2005.

If all goes well in Shanghai and Hong Kong, Beijing could be next on both studios’ expansion lists. The capital is host to the 2008 Summer Olympics, which should accelerate cultural exchange and put the accent on family fun in China.

Although the Chinese can hardly be said to be nostalgic for or sentimental over American icons like “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” “Jaws” or “The Flintstones” — in most cases they’ve never even been exposed to these characters — they do have increasing time and money at their disposal. And, unlike Americans, they are not first and foremost couch potatoes.

Shanghai and environs are home to 20 million people, and most adults are in thrall to the one or two children they’re allowed to have by the state. Contrast that with the paucity of tiny tots in Europe and you get an idea of where the growth prospects are.

In addition, China has been spared undue concerns about terrorism, so internal leisure travel within the country has not suffered the recent dips seen in the U.S. and Europe.

Whatever revenues the studios repatriate from their eventual resort operations, they’re bound to be healthier than what they’re making now. From the 20-odd Hollywood movies allowed official theatrical release in China each year, the studios collectively pocket a modest $30 million to $40 million because of lopsided import rules. Deals by Hollywood majors to TV outlets in China are similarly dispiriting, with license fees still a measly $500 an hour, less than rates in Bulgaria or Bahrain.

But even if the Chinese government continues to reduce bureaucratic red tape, it will not be automatic smooth sailing for the parks.

Disney suffered several high-profile hiccups, including strikes, when it opened Euro Disney outside Paris 12 years ago, and only broke even after much tinkering with its price points and mix of attractions; Universal suffered a recent setback in Japan, when everything from bad food to faulty plumbing conspired to send visitors packing.

The biggest challenge in China will probably be getting the mix of local and Western themes right — and not overpricing the tickets.

But the rewards are enticing: According to PricewaterhouseCoopers’ report on global media growth through 2005, China’s decision to court Western investment and expertise will expand its market and help fuel overall theme park growth in the region.

In a country of 1.25 billion mostly leisure-starved inhabitants, that’s a lot of yen for entertainment.

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