The Chinese Communist Party’s richest man is now the biggest owner of US movie theaters

Wang Jianlin, movie-theater magnate.
Wang Jianlin, movie-theater magnate.
Image: Imaginechina via AP Images
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AMC Entertainment, the movie-theater chain owned by Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda, has purchased Carmike Cinemas, a rival 3,000-screen chain known as “America’s hometown theater circuit,” for $1.1 billion. The deal puts AMC into the top spot in the US movie-theater industry, with 8,380 screens in over 600 theaters across the country.

It also puts even more of the US entertainment industry into Chinese control, as deep-pocketed Chinese tycoons seek partnerships with Hollywood studios, gaming companies, and digital-effects studios. Wang Jianlin, who owns Dalian Wanda, has been one of the most aggressive—the group purchased Jurassic World producer Legendary Entertainment in January for $3.5 billion.

After the Carmike deal closes, the US movie-theater landscape will be dominated by AMC, followed by Regal Entertainment and Cinemark Theaters, before fragmenting into dozens of smaller chains, many of them family-owned:

Wang, who is China’s richest man, is a former commander in the People’s Liberation Army, and a current delegate to the Chinese People’s National Congress, as well as a member of an advisory board to the Communist Party. Some of his current and former businesses are closely linked to the family of current president Xi Jinping, the New York Times noted last year.

Wang’s investments are influenced by political directives. He bought into professional soccer teams abroad because “government leaders care about it very much,” he wrote in an autobiography.

Will dominance of the theater market by a Communist Party heavyweight influence what appears on American screens? Under Xi, China has undergone a widespread crackdown on free speech and tighter controls on the media. New rules prohibit television shows from depicting homosexuality and “sexual freedom,” for example, and news media have been instructed to reflect the party’s point of view at all times.

“There are multiple ways in which China gets its message out,” Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at the University of Canterbury who studies the Communist Party, told Quartz before the AMC deal. Beijing’s handling of criticism about its slowing economy may seem heavy-handed, Brady said, but China’s “economic propaganda” has been incredibly successful—giving Beijing broader influence in Hollywood and elsewhere.

Getting Hollywood movies to show positive portrayals of China, or no portrayal of it all, is part of the government’s goal of spreading a positive image of the country, she said.