Over footage of the Tiananmen Square massacre, a gravel-voiced narrator warns: “When a government controls the media, they can control what you see… and what you don’t see.”
The video was produced by China Owns Us, an organization formed to warn of a wave of Chinese acquisitions in the U.S. entertainment industry. The campaign’s chief target is the Dalian Wanda Group, which owns AMC Theaters and Legendary Entertainment, and has announced plans to acquire Carmike Cinemas. The merger would make the combined company the largest cinema operator in the world.
“Would an American movie that told the story of Tiananmen Square get made today if the producers knew that the Chinese could refuse to show that movie on their 8,000-plus American movie screens, never mind movie screens in China?” another video asks.
A disclaimer at the bottom of the website states that China Owns Us is a project of the Center for American Security, which is itself affiliated with the Enterprise Freedom Action Committee. The whole thing is run by Richard Berman, a notorious D.C. figure known for stealth campaigns against unions, animal rights activists, and environmentalists.
Berman operates numerous non-profit groups that do not disclose their donors. In 2014, the New York Times received leaked audio in which Berman bragged that he could help corporate donors advance their agendas in total secrecy.
“There is total anonymity,” he said. “People don’t know who supports us.”
It is not clear who is financing Berman’s campaign against Wanda. He claims that he is funding most of the materials and that he was inspired to get involved in the issue out of alarm over the increasing amount of Chinese involvement in the entertainment industry. He is concerned that China would be able to censor speech and ideas if it continues to buy up theater chains, production entities, and get involved in slate financing deals.
“I don’t like repressive governments,” said Berman. “My goal is to shine a light on what Wanda is doing.”
But Berman does have a relationship with Philip Anschutz, the Colorado billionaire who owns a controlling stake in Regal Entertainment Group. Regal is currently the largest cinema chain in the U.S., but would be displaced if the AMC/Carmike merger is approved.
Tax records show that the Anschutz Foundation contributed $270,000 over three years to the Center for Union Facts, another Berman group. The foundation contributed $45,000 in 2012, $200,000 in 2011, and $25,000 in 2009. The Center for Union Facts campaigned against the Employee Free Choice Act, federal legislation which would have made it easier to form unions. It also campaigned against teachers’ unions. Anschutz is a major contributor to charter schools and education reform efforts.
Anschutz is famously press shy. His representatives did not return multiple calls seeking comment about China Owns Us and Berman.
“I certainly do know Phil, but he is not one of my funders,” said Berman.
He added, “I never disclose donors to my campaigns and there’s always speculation about who is funding them. I’m always amazed by how much curiosity there is. It doesn’t matter who is giving the money, it only matters if what I’m saying is accurate.”
There have also been rumors that Carmike investors, angry over the sale to AMC, are backing the campaign. Berman denied that they are playing a role.
“I have been contacted by some of them, but I’m not getting any money from Carmike shareholders,” said Berman.
Wanda has been on a buying spree of late, but it’s not the only Chinese conglomerate with business interests in Hollywood. China’s Alibaba took a minority stake in Amblin Pictures, Hony Capital and TPG Growth have invested in STX Entertainment, and Fosun is backing Studio 8, among other high-profile deals.
Berman’s campaign appears to be resonating in Washington, D.C. A bipartisan group of lawmakers have asked government agencies to examine whether or not they need to more deeply review Chinese investments.
Whatever the case, Berman does seem to be a familiar presence in Anschutz’s orbit. His 2014 speech, in which he bragged about keeping corporate contributions secret, was held at the palatial Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs.
The owner of the hotel? Phil Anschutz.