China’s Wanda Studios in Qingdao officially opened on Saturday (April 28) with a low-key ceremony. That was paired with the announcement of ambitious Chinese projects, but a frustrating lack of inbound Hollywood movies.
With the Wanda parent company still in the Chinese government’s sin bin, the stunning new studio may be a tangible indicator that points more to business than showbiz glamour.
There was no red carpet or or global superstars at the grand theater, where the one-hour ceremony took place. The Wanda Group has been under tight government scrutiny in recent years, particularly over its high profile foreign investments including acquisitions of Legendary Entertainment and AMC Theatres. It has been shedding assets and suffered a high turnover of top executives as the conglomerate’s financial and political woes deepened.
That was a stark contrast to the initial launch of the studios’ construction launch in 2013, when Leonardo DiCaprio, John Travolta and Nicole Kidman were flown in to give the $7.9 billion RMB50 billion project some Hollywood glamour.
Officially known as Qingdao Movie Metropolis, the 166-hectare site that houses a total of 40 soundstages, production studios, hotels and entertainment facilities, welcomed a coterie of high profile local officials and the Film Bureau’s deputy director Li Guoqi, to join Wang Jianlin, chairman of Dalian Wanda, and Sun Hongbin, chairman of Sunac China Holdings. As part of Wanda’s enforced debt reduction program last year, it sold majority sharehodling in the studios to Sunac, but Wanda remains in management control.
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Foreign guests included Dawn Hudson, CEO of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and William Pfeiffer, executive chairman of Globalgate Entertainment. Chinese filmmakers such as Feng Xiaogang and Huang Bo were also in attendance.
The low key ceremony did not conceal the Qingdao Movie Metropolis’s truly ambitious scale. Its Chinese name was on display on the hill, in a fashion reminiscent of the Hollywood sign.
The studios’ executive CEO Alvin Fu told Variety that complex’s largest studios (with a floor area of 3,000m2 or roughly 300,000 square feet) are fully booked through the second half of 2018. They will serve as production base for Chinese epic fantasy “Fengshen Trilogy” and a pair of unnamed Hollywood productions. One of them expects to use the studios’ underwater stage and exterior water tank, the world’s largest, Fu said.
In total the scheme encompasses including a 10,000 m2 soundstage, claimed to be the world’s largest, Wanda shopping malls, theme parks and a yacht club.
Fu said he was expecting Chinese big productions, particularly sci-fi projects, will be among the first to begin making films at the studios. Last year sci-fi “Wandering Earth” and Ning Hao’s “Crazy Alien” completed their productions at the studios. The RMB440 million (RMB3 billion) “Fengshen Trilogy,” being directed by Wuershan and produced by heavyweights Bill Kong and Du Yang, will begin production there later this year.
While the operators were unable to name any Hollywood or foreign films that are Qingdao-bound, Fu said that the underwater facilities are proving of especial interest. Within China, the studios have struck a deal with Jia Hao, underwater camera operator for “Wolf Warrior 2,” to use the studios’ water facilities.
The studios have another potential ace in their pocket. A $790 million production rebate system could provide producers with a 40% discount of their relevant costs. When fully operational that would be one of the highest rebate schemes in the world. A key criterion, however, is the granting of a screening permit by the Qingdao local authorities. That points to approved co-productions as the most likely beneficiaries. Fu said “The Great Wall” will receive $2.5 million (RMB16 million) rebate check. “Pacific Rim 2,” produced by Wanda-owned Legendary is also due a rebate.
Another incentive is the Maker Space, which will serve as an incubator for industry startups. Maker Space may see the studio assume the role of an angel investor, offering “sizeable” seed money to young companies with potential to develop their businesses and products.