RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And Memorial Day marks the opening of the summer movie season. One of the big blockbusters this year isn't a film, but a business deal. As we reported earlier this week, a Chinese company named Wanda is buying AMC Entertainment for $2.6 billion. AMC is North America's second-largest movie theater company. Wanda is one of China's leading cinema owners.
NPR's Frank Langfitt reports on the decision-making behind this deal, and on China's booming movie theater business.
UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: (Foreign language spoken)
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: As Chinese state television reported the agreement this week, it did not, at first glance, make a lot of sense - at least, for the buyer. AMC is loaded with debt - about $2 billion. And movie theater attendance in North America was down 4 percent last year. Wanda, on the other hand, owns 730 screens in the world's fasting-growing movie market - China. But analysts say there's a logic behind Wanda's move, and it's about more than multiplexes.
Aiden Sun is senior analyst with Entgroup, a Chinese entertainment research company. He says Wanda also wants to push into movie production. Buying an American cinema company would bring Wanda that much closer to Hollywood.
AIDEN SUN: They are talking now; talking to some very famous producers or distribution companies not only in U.S., but also globally. And they want to cooperate with them, to start co-production in China.
LANGFITT: Movie theaters are just a small part of Wanda's holdings. The company brings in $17 billion a year in revenue from nearly 50 shopping plazas, 40 department stores and more than two dozen, five-star hotels. But China's property market is cooling, and analysts think Wanda may be looking to AMC as a base in the U.S., where it could buy up commercial real estate at bargain prices.
Gao Shouzhi is Entgroup's CEO.
GAO SHOUZHI: (Through Translator) Wanda's strategy isn't only to make profit from its cinema investment. A bigger part of it is to take Wanda's other businesses, like hotels, overseas through this channel. This is the idea behind its internationalization plan.
LANGFITT: The Communist Party is trying to improve China's image abroad, and wants to use culture - including movies - to do so. Does that mean Wanda is looking to use AMC to mass-export Chinese films?
Rob Cain, a Los Angeles movie producer and consultant who's lived and worked in China, doubts it.
ROB CAIN: There's no way that Wanda can fill their screens with Chinese movies. People just aren't going to pay to see them.
LANGFITT: Chinese conglomerates - even private ones, like Wanda - have close ties to the Communist Party. So, Cain says, Wanda might give a little push to China's so-called soft power campaign, and show the occasional Chinese film or travel ad.
CAIN: I can see smaller ways where they could really be good, patriotic Chinese citizens in helping China to spread its message around the world.
LANGFITT: Wanda's purchase of AMC comes at a time of staggering growth in China's movie theater business.
RANCE POW: China, over this last year, has been growing at about eight movie screens per day.
LANGFITT: Rance Pow runs Aristan Gateway, a cinema investment consultancy and research house with offices in Shanghai. Pow says what's driving that growth is rising incomes, better Chinese movies and new, state-of-the-art theaters.
POW: There is a whole generation of movie-goers now that's growing up with cinema as part of their life. And with more dollars in their pockets to spend for fun, they're choosing to go to see the movies as a priority.
LANGFITT: I'm here at a Wanda multiplex in Shanghai. And the difference between going to see a movie 10 or 15 years ago in China, versus today, is really dramatic. Back then, you'd go to an individual theater. Maybe the sound system wouldn't be very good; there might be some broken chairs. This multiplex today, it's got 10 screens; it's state-of-the-art; there's an IMAX theater with stadium seating.
Shi Huihui is leaving a matinee of the "Avengers 3-D" with her husband and 3-year-old son, Chen Qiyu. The ticket cost $8, a bargain by current Chinese cinema standards. By contrast, an IMAX "Avengers 3-D" ticket on a Friday night costs about $25. Shi says a decade ago, she mostly watched movies on pirated DVDs.
SHI HUIHUI: (Through Translator) Compared to before, now I normally go to the movies to watch blockbusters. You can't watch a 3-D movie at home. And you can't get the experience of all this entertainment technology at home.
LANGFITT: More and more Chinese seem to feel the same way. Industry analysts expect China's box office to top Japan's this year, to become the world's second-largest. China has about 10,000 screens - a little more than a quarter of the number in the U.S. And that leaves a lot of room to grow.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.