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Shanghai: China’s Once-Mighty Wanda Casts Itself in Role of Survivor

The soundtrack for the introductory showreel at Wednesday evening’s Shanghai press event announcing Wanda Pictures’ annual line-up was aspirational and strangely defiant. 

It began with Nina Simone crooning, “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good,” and then continued with “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child. “You thought that I’d be weak without you, but I’m stronger… I’m a survivor, I’m not going to give up, I’m not going to stop, I’m going to work harder.”

The corporate parent, Dalian Wanda, whose entertainment empire straddled theme parks and cinema, film production and distribution, fell out of government favor and was put on a watch list in 2017. It also struggled with high levels of debt that forced a dramatic retrenchment.  The company’s balance sheet has shrunk by more than $25 billion since 2016, yet it still has nearly 30% of its current total assets outstanding in debt obligations, according to the South China Morning Post.

Yet the lyrics and the Wanda Pictures presentation both appeared to be describing Wanda’s desire to make a cinematic comeback.

Wanda Film president Zeng Maojun echoed Beyonce in his comments on stage: “As long as you’re alive, you still have a chance. Even if the whole world doesn’t believe in you, as long as you still believe in yourself, you will still have chances.”

Last year, Wanda Pictures and U.S. subsidiary Legendary Entertainment jointly earned $3.68 billion (RMB25.4 billion) at the global box office, Zeng said. The conglomerate continues to operate as the world’s largest theater chain, with 631 theaters and 8,110 screens in the U.S. and 595 theaters and 5,297 screens in China, its two major territories. 

Its three major intellectual properties include Legendary’s “MonsterVerse,” the “Ghost Blows Out the Life” novel series, and the “Detective Chinatown” film series, which this year will also be spun off into a 12-episode online drama, a game, and, in collaboration with a Japanese firm, a comic.

Wanda also presented its Elite Project + talent development program, which has so far signed three young directors and 35 up-and-coming screenwriters. Among them was director Bai Xue, whose debut art film “The Crossing,” produced by veteran filmmaker Tian Zhuangzhuang, brought in just $1.4 million at the box office in March but garnered international and festival acclaim. Her next film will be larger in scale, Bai said. But it will remain on a similar subject, telling a multi-national story that involves a crime.

Wang Lei is another director who has come out of the program. His upcoming documentary “Where Is My Flight Home” won the 2018 CNEX/CCDF Pitching Award.

Wanda’s upcoming line-up includes “Bodies at Rest,” a thriller from Finnish director Renny Harlin (“Die Hard 2”) that in March was the opening of the Hong Kong International Film Festival and set to Chinese hit theaters in August; “Liberation,” one of the few of the upcoming military-themed propaganda films to be directed by a woman, fifth generation director Li Shaohong (“Stolen Life”); “Sheep Without a Shepherd,” directed by Malaysian newcomer Sam Quah which is expected in December; “Detective Chinatown 3,” which will launch at Chinese New Year 2020; and next summer’s “Mojin” franchise extension “The Legend Hunters,” co-directed by Simon West (“Tomb Raider”).

Further down the line will be a film version of the popular wuxia novel and TV series “Battle Through the Heavens,” set for 2021, a new title “Folding City,” and “Mojin 2,” a direct sequel to 2014’s “Mojin: The Lost Legend.”

Through Legendary, its international slate includes 2020’s “Godzilla vs. Kong,” Denis Villeneuve’s 2020 adaptation of “Dune,” the Jennifer Lawrence-starring “Bad Blood,” and a project it referred to as a “female Sherlock Holmes.”

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