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What Is Fueling Wanda’s Hollywood Dealmaking?

Wang Jianlin, the 64 year-old chairman of China’s Dalian Wanda group, is in too much of a hurry to worry about having his corporate wrist slapped by regulators over a shelved plan to absorb Legendary Entertainment into Wanda Pictures.

Wanda announced its $3.5 billion acquisition of Legendary in January and immediately set about refinancing the group’s film unit through restructurings and select share sales to a couple of dozen corporate and institutional investors. With Legendary as the Hollywood allure at its core, the unit was attributed a valuation of $5.7 billion.

That it didn’t meet with approval from the CSRC in July was a blow, but not one that has blown Wanda off its financial track or dulled Wang’s desire to expand further – much further — in the movie industry.

This week Wang spelled out clearer than any Chinese businessman has ever done previously, that he wants of own one of Hollywood’s big six studios. In an interview with Reuters, he described the six MPA members as the “only real film companies” in the world and that owning one would be a “necessary step” in his ambition to build a real movie empire.

But even that will not be enough. Shining some light on his upcoming deal pipeline, Wang said that this year would also see Wanda involved in two other deals each worth $1 billion involving Hollywood companies.

Sources close to Wang, who were not authorized to speak on behalf of the group, say that Wanda is looking for strategic deals, not ones that are only grounded on financial reasons. Target firms will likely own or control significant intellectual property and have the potential to be scaled up to become global players.

That makes U.S. enterprises a priority. And Wang’s commitment to stateside expansion is said to be for the long term. Wanda’s controversial Beverly Hills headquarters project may be a tangible sign of the scale of Wang’s U.S. goals.

Target companies will likely be required to have expertise or assets that can flow back to China and benefit the emerging industries that serve the country’s growing middle classes. Lifestyle demands for entertainment, leisure travel and healthcare are ballooning.

In the near term, Wang is said to favor film and sports corporations over TV. But media technology, location based entertainment and Internet companies could also be on the agenda.

He makes that case that the rise of China — and the rise of China’s box office in particular – has been of benefit to Hollywood. It represented a new market opportunity that opened up at a time when home entertainment and pay-TV markets were weakening in North American, and Europe was stagnating. Wanda’s deal making is expected to reflect that.

Wang, who is always groomed and business smart, sometime appears to let his hair down and let slip a loose-lipped boast. But such apparent slip-ups may also be well-calculated devices to shake out more deal targets and to bring in more partners. Or simply they may be uttered to keep his gigantic group looking like it is going forward as nimbly as a younger, smaller player.

Those close to Wang say he is determined to transform Wanda from unsexy property developer into the world’s largest media-entertainment-leisure conglomerate. His detractors say that the cultural industry expansion is camouflage for activities that are still property plays at base.

His studio-film festival center at Qingdao may be an example. It is possible that his bid for the land may not have emerged as winner had Wanda not pitched the coastal city a cultural plan rather than, say, office blocks or an industrial park. The studios are scheduled to open in 2017, but some apartment blocks have already been completed and sold off.

Similarly, Wanda’s multiplexes undoubtedly drive footfalls into the company’s Wanda Plaza malls in China. It opened two more malls this month.

Wang sees no contradiction. Hotels, theme parks and movie studios need sound project management skills and the large amounts of capital that asset-rich property companies can provide.

What Wang is openly trying to do is make his assets go further. He has called it “asset light” development. That means bringing in partner financiers and also diversifying into areas that require fewer tangible assets.

In the past two years that has brought the Legendary deal, but also acquisitions of Philippe Blatter’s Infront sports marketing firm and the World Triathlon Corporation, organizer of the Ironman competitions.

The next round of deals may show how far Wanda is willing to stray from its roots.

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