China's Bid for AMC: The Elephant in the Theater

Guest Blog: Reports about Dalian Wanda Group's $2.6 billion purchase of AMC have missed a big ironic point about China's take on foreign films

Amidst all the news about Dalian Wanda Group Corp.’s $2.6 billion proposed purchase of cinema chain AMC Entertainment Holdings, one huge irony has gone largely unreported.

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China severely curtails the number and nature of the foreign films it imports — 20 last year, and nothing more troublesome to Communist apparatchiks than “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island.” And now one of China’s major leisure and retail chains, clearly with the government’s blessing, wants to buy a big American movie chain that this week promoted titles like “The Dictator” and “Chernobyl Diaries”?

Given that the MPAA has traditionally branded China Public Enemy No. 1 for the blind eye it turns to rampant piracy of U.S. movies, this isn’t something that bears discussion?

There’s certainly a credible argument to be made that, without some kind of parity and protection in our ability to access the Chinese film market, we shouldn’t be allowing Chinese firms to buy into ours willy-nilly.

Beyond that, I’d like to hazard a guess as to what’s going on from the Chinese point of view.
If you’ve spent any time with Chinese government and media industry officials (and I have, although admittedly not over the last year) it’s obvious that they are fundamentally at odds with themselves.

On the one hand, the Chinese government desperately wants to grow its film and television business and has set quotas for these “soft products” to government officials and their industry affiliates. The goal of “taking on Hollywood” is often explicitly mentioned, as if movies were something you could manufacture like solar panels or toys.

On the other hand, the keepers of Communist purity and control are deeply opposed to allowing foreign material into Chinese movie theaters, worrying (correctly) that there’s nothing more subversive than watching films chock full of heroes defying or mocking authority.

And so, China is trying to have its cake and eat it, too. It will sign co-production agreements with studios like DreamWorks or Disney while carefully controlling what can be made. It will allow investments in American movie chains, but it’s not about to allow “The Dictator” to show in the homeland.

If we’re OK with all this, fine. But shouldn’t we be discussing it?