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Fosun Invests in Movies With an Eye Toward China’s Growing Middle Class

With Hollywood courting Chinese capital, conglomerate Fosun Intl., the largest stakeholder in Jeff Robinov’s Studio 8, is looking to oblige — but on its own terms.

Fosun, which also owns more than one-fifth of Bona Film Group, and recently bought a significant minority stake in Cirque du Soleil, is nevertheless better known to financial analysts for its interests in mining, insurance, pharmaceuticals and asset management. But company execs, led by chairman Guo Guangchang, prefer to define Fosun’s concerns by those to whom it targets its diverse products — China’s growing middle class.

As China’s population has become predominantly urban and wealthier, the economy has begun to turn from investment to consumption. Having disposable income changes the nature of the goods and services people buy —  to clothing that’s more fashionable and vacations that more often are taken outside China; it also generates growing expenditures for free-time diversions, like movie tickets. Guo describes Fosun’s activities as belonging to “hives” that include health care, culture/entertainment and travel/leisure — areas “precisely focused on China’s middle class lifestyles.”

Over the past few years, Fosun has bought firms that add to its deal-making firepower and its range of financial products to sell to China’s aging, gentrifying population, including insurers in Portugal and the U.S., a financier with investment banks in the U.K. and Germany, and a Hong Kong brokerage.

But for many 21st century investment managers, conglomerates are out of fashion. Shares of congloms often trade at a discount to the sum of their parts, or to their more targeted peers.

Fosun hopes to combat that attitude not just by targeting consumer growth sectors, but also, like two of China’s other corporate giants, Wanda and Alibaba, with investments in the entertainment industry, and by driving change from the old economy to the digital economy.

Fosun spent more than $500 million in 2014-15 to upgrade the Internet offerings of its existing portfolio of businesses. And last month, it bought 9% of Sina Corp., China’s Nasdaq-listed Internet services and social-media group.

Fosun’s string of acquisitions of small and medium insurance companies is modeled on Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, which has retained its allure among small investors. Berkshire sees
revenues that flow from insurance premiums as funding for growth businesses in its portfolio, and as capital for acquisitions. Property revenues have a similar function.

Fosun’s strength has been to build into sectors that have been opened up by the government. It started selling medical diagnostics kits, then moved into pharmaceuticals, before branching into property when that was allowed, and then into steel, iron ore extraction and gold mining. In the past 12 months, it bought Club Mediterranee and a piece of the U.K.’s Thomas Cook, pumping up its travel business — another growth sector in China.

Now, with the entertainment sector a national priority, Fosun has targeted the space, investing $200 million for a 48% stake in former Warner Bros. exec Robinov and his Studio 8, and increasing its stake in China’s prolific Bona Film Group from 7.5% to 20.8%. The two companies are backers of Ang Lee’s upcoming “Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk,” the first pic greenlighted at Studio 8.

In April, the conglom revealed a nascent film production and investment unit, Fosun Pictures. And last week, Fosun held a strategy presentation for Shanghai Film Festival delegates.

But it’s a plan revealed last month that might be the most telling as to what’s on Fosun’s horizon: At that time, the company announced it was adding $1.2 billion to its acquisitions capacity, raising the cash through the issue of new shares on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. So while bowing a film production arm and backing high-profile movies are a good start, it would seem they’re only the appetizer on Fosun’s entertainment menu.

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