China And Hollywood Get Close As Chinese Company Buys AMC Theaters

  @ibtimes on May 22 2012 11:11 AM
Imagining The Real Deal
Chinese models dressed as brides posing next to a wax statue of Robert Pattinson at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in Shanghai. Reuters

What's more American than going to a local movie theater for the Hollywood experience?

But the love for big, noisy blockbusters is international. And, as it turns out, China now has an appetite for them -- an appetite so big that it's spending billions to satisfy it.

The Dalian Wanda Group, a name few people in the U.S. have ever heard -- but in fact a giant real estate and entertainment conglomerate in China -- announced on Monday that it had bought out AMC Entertainment Group, America's second-largest theater chain, for $2.6 billion.

The deal made history: it is the largest-ever acquisition of a U.S. company by a Chinese one, surpassing even the 2005 $1.8 billion sale of IBM's personal computer business to Lenovo Group Ltd.

Although Wanda (pronounced von-da) only had 86 theaters and 730 screens in China, small compared to AMC's 347 theatres with 5,048 screens across the U.S., the Chinese company also owns 49 shopping and entertainment plazas, 28 high-end hotels, 40 department stores, and 45 karaoke centers. That is estimated at around $35 billion in total assets. It sells 15 percent of all movie tickets in China, where it is the country's largest theater chain.

Regal Entertainment Group (NYSE: RGC), the U.S.' largest theater operator, still has more theaters than the two combined, with 6,775 screens over 548 locations.

The New York Times originally reported on May 7 that the AMC deal was valued at only $1.5 billion. That's a drop from 2004, when the Apollo Group, a leveraged buyout and private equity firm, originally divided its majority stake in AMC between itself and JPMorgan for a deal worth $1.7 billion. Apollo Investment Fund and J.P. Morgan Partners each previously owned 39 percent of AMC before the purchase by Wanda; Bain Capital Investors, the Carlyle Group and Spectrum Equity Investors previously owned the remaining portions of the theater company.

The current deal includes Wanda's assumption of AMC's approximately $1.9 billion in debt burdens. Wanda said it will invest an additional $500 million into AMC to upgrade its facilities and equipment.

Wanda had an annual income of $17 billion in 2011, and wants to more than double that figure to $32 billion by 2015.

The company's chairman, Wang Jianlin, a retired army officer now worth $7.1 billion, was the tenth-richest man in China in 2011 according to Forbes. Wang was a deputy in the 17th National Congress of the Communist Party in 2007, a pivotal group of over 2,200 delegates which formally approves China's leadership and political ideologies. He's also a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, which serves to advise the government on important economic and political decisions.

The current deal could eventually give AMC more room to grow in China. However, some experts said the purchase is overall a poor decision for the Chinese company, overpaying to take on greater burdens abroad and drawing it away from its own, and far more dynamic, home market.

But that argument misses the central point of the deal, which is at its core more political than financial. The deal underscores the desire of Chinese companies to gain increased stature in the West. And there are few ways better to gain name recognition than to secure a highly visible U.S. company.

U.S. companies have also been eager to enter China in a bigger way. They are driven mostly by two factors: China's hunger for special-effects-heavy American films and pressure in the U.S. for film companies to look internationally to grow beyond a stagnant home market.

Last year, North American companies signed large movie-related deals in China. RealD Inc. (NYSE: RLD) said in late August 2011 that it will install its 3D equipment in 100 different facilities owned by Beijing's SAGA Luxury Cinema Management Company.

In March 2011, Wanda also signed a joint venture with Imax Corporation (NYSE:IMAX), the Canadian owner of IMAX display technologies, to open 75 new theaters across China by 2014.

Following new allowances this February from the Chinese government to introduce more American films per year and to give back greater percentages of proceeds back to U.S. film studios, which now receive 25 percent of ticket revenues in China, U.S. companies are rushing to establish a firmer position in the Middle Kingdom.

International media giant News Corp. (NASDAQ: NWS), the parent company of 20th Century Fox Film Corp., is partnering with China's largest private film distributor in order to gain a foothold in Asia's film market. On May 14, Bona Film Group Ltd. announced that its CEO Yu Dong will directly offer a 19.9 percent stake (value undisclosed) to News Corp. Bona's net revenue for first quarter 2012 was $43.7 million, up 126.8 percent from the same period last year; profits in first quarter 2012 were $20.8 million, up 122 percent.

Yu will personally retain 27 percent ownership in Bona, a highly successful producer, distributor, and theater operator in China. The company recently produced the country's highest-grossing indigenous film of all time: Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, which starred Chinese martial arts superstar Jet Li. But Flying Swords still couldn't compete against American features like Avatar, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and Titanic 3D - it ranked behind those as the fourth-highest grossing movie of all time in China.

Bona distributed 15 movies in China in 2011, capturing 16.5 percent of the market.

On April 10, the Walt Disney Co. (NYSE: DIS) said that it will partner with state-owned China Animation Group and internet giant Tencent (Hong Kong: 700) to advance digital animation development there. DreamWorks Sutdios, buoyed by the success of its Kung Fu Panda movies in China, announced in February that it would partner with Shanghai Media Group to open a production studio in Shanghai for the specific purpose of creating animated shows and movies for the Chinese market.

The number of movie screens in China could more than double over the next 3 years from its current number over 6,000, according to figures cited by industry experts. Over the next 30 years that number could increase sixfold. So far, no large American theater companies have been able to break into the Chinese market to open their own locations. 

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