The move comes after Wanda has been rebuffed by the Chinese government for its aggressive overseas expansion moves. Gao had been instrumental in many of those moves — some successful, others that were aborted.
Zeng Maojun, president of Wanda Film, will take the reins as Legendary’s interim leader. Founder, Thomas Tull departed the studio in January, leaving it without top leadership, while in June Peter Loehr, head of China-based Legendary East, also departed. Mary Parent, Legendary’s head of production, is said to be staying with the Burbank-based studio.
Dalian Wanda has its roots in property development, but has expanded massively into entertainment, and latterly sports. It is controlled by billionaire Wang Jianlin, and operated through a web of listed and privately owned companies.
Wang recently made it clear that Wanda will, in the near and medium term, focus most of its energies on development within China, rather than abroad. That appears to be a direct a result of the government actions against his empire. In that context, Gao had already seen his role reduced, both within film and overseas property-cum-entertainment developments, such as its proposed leisure park in Northern Paris.
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Gao joined Wanda in 2015, serving as Wanda’s CEO of international investments and operations. In this role, he advised Wang during aggressive international expansion in 2015 and 2016. Formerly a senior executive at News Corp. and Microsoft, Gao often described his role within Wanda as situated at the crossroads between international development and the creative industries.
He was instrumental in $3.5 billion purchase of Legendary, as well as the attempted acquisition of a stake in Paramount Pictures, and the $1 billion agreed purchase of Dick Clark Productions. The Dick Clark deal came apart in early 2017, following capital control moves that were introduced at the end of 2016 by the Chinese government.
Further tightening of Chinese capital outflows and corporate indebtedness, stumped Wanda’s international growth through acquisition. Despite those dampers, Wanda remains a major player in the global movie industry, owning the largest cinema chains in the world’s two largest theatrical markets.
It has a controlling stake in North American exhibition firms AMC and Carmike. And, mostly through organic growth, Wanda has built the largest cinema chain in China. Before it was halted, the overseas acquisition spree also netted Wanda West European chain Odeon-UCI the Nordic Cinema chain in Scandinavia, and Australia’s Hoyts.