Friday, November 18, 2016
As you know Wanda's CEO Wang Jianlin - real estate tycoon and richest man in China - is self declared Disney's biggest foe and determined to make Shanghaî Disneyland a financial failure. His famous quote "One tiger is no match for a pack of wolves - Shanghaî has one Disney while Wanda, across the nation, will open 15 or 20 theme parks" is now famous and two theme parks built at the speed of light have already open in Hefei and Nanchang.
Now, Wang Jianlin did a series of announcements recently which shows that he's ready to spend an enourmous amount of money to win the battle, but this time things has changed a bit as he's apparently also learning from his mistakes - the park which opened in Wuhan in 2014 has closed just 19 months after its opening for "upgrades". So, let's see what were Wang Jianlin different moves during the last weeks as it might give an idea of what he prepares for the future.
First, on October 15 we learned that Wanda hired Andrew Kam, previously at the head of Hong Kong Disneyland. Andrew Kam will serve as "vice president of Wanda’s Cultural Tourism Group, which is planning to build and operate a series of large-scale theme parks across China". Well, this first move is not necessarily a bad one as not only he hired someone who was at the head of a major theme park, but also a Disney one, which basically gives Wang Jianlin the knowledge of how his biggest competitor create theme parks, not to mention to learn what will be Disney's future projects in advance as Andrew Kam probably kept some connections inside the Mouse.
Then, a few days after, on October 26, Wang Jianlin and "his delegation" went to visit Shanghaî Disneyland. I suppose that Andrew Kam probably told him something like "well, you know, it might be a good idea that you'll go at Shanghaî Disneyland to see by your own eyes how Disney do it..." No surprise, Wang Jianlin declared during his visit: “The visit to Shanghai Disneyland is both an observation and study”. And there is a lot to study at SDL for Wang Jianlin if he wants to understand the secrets of what makes a Disney park unique.
Then, and for sure impressed by the quality of Shanghaî Disneyland rides Wang went back to his headquarter, probably gather his "war council", and a few days ago an official press release from Premier Rides announced that Wanda has signed a contract with them "to build one of the most cutting-edge attractions ever to be introduced to the theme park industry".
Here is the full press release in case you missed it: The Wanda Group has awarded Premier Rides a major contract to design and build one of the most cutting-edge attractions ever to be introduced to the theme park industry. The first-of-its-kind attraction will set a new standard for technical innovation and will reinforce Wanda’s stated goal to be the leader in China’s themed entertainment industry. The project will represent the most significant investment to date by Wanda on a single attraction and will introduce stunning new technologies that are sure to impress Wanda’s millions of fans.
Jim Seay, President of Premier Rides commented on the award stating “Premier Rides is incredibly respectful of Wanda’s commitment to build the best, world-class attractions and world-class theme parks throughout China and beyond. Their dedication to providing high-end thrilling immersive experiences is very impressive and we are honored to be a part of their vision for success. The Wanda team is very focused and works hard to ensure the best possible product. Premier has great synergy with Wanda.”
Premier Rides is known for focusing on large, technically complex projects that incorporate the newest technologies and has provided the ride equipment for award-winning attractions like The Revenge of the Mummy™ at Universal Studios and Full Throttle at Six Flags Magic Mountain. The project with Wanda takes ride technology to the next level and will raise the bar on expectations throughout the industry. Cloaked in a high level of secrecy, details of the project are being kept very quiet.
Seay added “We are honored to be part of Wanda’s team which is absolutely focused on providing the newest and most exciting rides to the entertainment industry. The contract with Wanda is one of the largest ever for Premier Rides and we are very grateful for the trust placed in us. The themed entertainment business is very strong right now and Premier is in a growth phase to meet the industry needs. We are highly focused on the Asian market as its expansion continues to lead the industry and it has become the focus for the best the industry can imagine.”
So, so far, Wanda has hired Andrew Kam former head of HKDL, signed a contract with the folks of Premier Rides who know what a good ride mean, and tour Shanghaî Disneyland for inspiration... And then, came the BIG announcement ten days ago: the Wanda Group will invest $15 Billion to compete with Disney in China. Yes, you've read it well: 15 BILLION Dollars, i.e THREE times the cost of Shanghaî Disneyland. Actually, to be fair, Wanda signed an agreement with the municipal government of Changsha in China’s Hunan province to spend more than $7,3 billion on a Wanda City theme park in that city, plus another $7 billion on 15 shopping plazas throughout the province. It still makes $7,3B for one theme park only, 50% more than what Disney has spent on the whole Shanghaî Disney Resort, including SDL Hotels.
But wait, there is more as two days ago Wanda unveiled its second $15 billion development project in one week, pledging to build a major theme park in China's historic Xi'an Province for 50 billion yuan ( always $7.3 billion ). The rest of the investment will go into various developments across the region, including 19 commercial plazas. When someone announces in less than ten days two $15 billion projects including two theme parks for a cost of $7,3 billion each either you consider it's pure madness or that the guy is serious and you start to have a closer look at "what the hell is happening". And i don't mention that Wang Jianlin also bought two weeks ago Dick Clark Productions - who organize the Golden Globes, the American Music Awards, and more, for about one billion dollars, adding to Wanda's portfolio that includes the AMC theater chain and film-production company Legendary Entertainment ( more about that one in a moment ). Wanda's empire is also expanding on the movie production front as a huge "Movie Metropolis" is under completion in the Chinese coastal city of Qingdao, where Wanda hopes to lure foreign productions to its massive soundstages. And Wanda also announced the creation of a multi-billion dollars investment fund to invest in all six Hollywood Studios. At first Wang Jianlin wanted to buy one of Hollywood "majors" studios and until recently he had some views on Paramount Pictures but, there, it started to raise an alert and 16 U.S Congressmen urged that Hollywood Studios should be consider among "national security" saying that "any Chinese company that benefits from “illegal subsidies” could pose a strategic, if not overt, national security threat as there have been “growing concerns about China’s efforts to censor topics and exert propaganda controls on American media”. Apparently Wang Jianlin got the message and decided instead to create this investment fund. Last but not least, let's not forget the $3.3 billion investment in the Europa City project near Paris announced last February, which will include a theme park.
From any angle you look at all this, you know that Wanda prepares something big and that Wang Jianlin is decided to spend billions and up to his last yuan to win the battle with Disney. Yes, BUT sometime billions are not enough. Sure, with $7,3B spent on each park you can create truly amazing theme parks IF you have the right creative people - he might hire plenty of SDL Imagineers that Disney fired recently after the park opened - the right rides manufacturers - Premier Rides is a good start and a deal with Dynamic Attractions could be a good move, too - and also a serious budget for rides and parks maintenance over the years, generally the weak point in China. But here is the problem: even with all this, if there is no emotional connection for the guests it won't "work" as well as when there is one. Think about Disneyland Indiana Jones adventure, for instance. IJA is undoubtedly one of the best rides ever created but would you enjoy the attraction as much if it was not linked to Indiana Jones but to an unknown hero that you've never heard about? It still will remain a great ride, but as much enjoyable emotionally speaking? Probably not. And that's what Wanda is missing, characters beloved by millions and characters to whom people can identify. Someone once said that each Disney's animated classics were trailers for the Disney theme parks, and it's not totally wrong, even if it was not the primary intention. And that's where the purchase of Legendary Entertainment can be of some help for Wanda. Legendary Pictures produce among dozens of others Pacific Rim, the latest Godzilla, the upcoming Kong : Skull Island, and many more, and all these are characters that Chinese know and with which you can design great rides. Godzilla is still the property of TOHO Studios in Japan and Universal has a deal on King Kong ( a swell as on Godzilla in Japan ), but this can be resolved probably, specially with a man who's spending billion of dollars each week. And i wouldn't be surprised if the lack of characters IP was also the reason why Wanda tried to buy one of Hollywood major studios. Though with the upcoming Wanda investmend fund in Hollywood movies they might be in good position to ask for the use of IP in their Chinese parks in exchange of millions of dollars that will help a movie to get into production...
Now, to find and hire the right creatives and the ride companies will be the easy part for Wanda, specially when you are a billionaire like Wang Jianlin. But to make sure that Wanda's future theme parks will be as good as Disney, Wang Jianlin will need another victory over his biggest enemy and it's one that no money can buy as it is: himself. From what i've been told Wang Jianlin has no understanding of the industry in which he is trying to compete. May be his visit to Shanghaî Disneyland opened his eyes but so far he didn't realize that all he was doing was taking western concepts and throwing a Chinese robe over it and calling it Chinese. The Wanda guys also have a reputation for hiring western experts, bring them out for the press and then ignored everything they said because they think they know better. Until recently all they were doing was buying rides and ideas from the west, paying for it once and then copying without understanding what makes them special.
So, it seems that Wang Jianlin has still a long road to go before being a true competitor with the same quality than Disney and may be his "pack of wolves" won't hurt Disney "tiger", finally...
Related articles to learn more about Wanda projects and Wang Jianlin: Wall Street Journal, Shanghaist, Hollywood Reporter HERE and HERE, New York Times.
Pictures: copyright Getty, Wanda, Hollywood Reporter