Is This Chinese City the New Hollywood?

An investor is hoping to turn Qingdao into a cinema powerhouse

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Walter Bibikow / Getty Images

Sunset over New Town and Fushan Bay in Qingdao, China

Hollywood is an actual place in California—but it’s also shorthand for the entire movie industry, which has been centered there for nearly as long as cinema has existed. But now it (both location and concept) has a challenger. Qingdao, a city in northeast China, is about to receive a huge infusion of cash in the interest of helping the Chinese movie industry take root.

As the Associated Press reports, Wang Jianlin, reported to be China’s richest man, has pledged up to $8.2 billion of his $22 billion fortune to build a massive state-of-the-art “film studio complex.” The planned Qingdao Oriental Movie Metropolis will comprise 20 studios, the world’s biggest sound stage, an R&D center, cinemas, museums, hotels, a theme park and more; the first components of the complex are scheduled to open in 2016.

In addition to the hundreds of domestic movies that will be produced there, a few dozen foreign films will reportedly make use of Qingdao’s facilities each year, though details of that deal have not been disclosed. A Sept. 22 party to celebrate Wang’s announcement drew stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicole Kidman. The project has government support, according to the New York Times, at a time when China has taken a strong interest in supporting home-grown culture.

(MOREHollywood East: Why American Movie Companies Are Rushing to Find Big-Screen Partners in China)

The partnership between a city and an industry is not the only link between the Qingdao concept and Hollywood. Wang’s company, Dalian Wanda Group, purchased the AMC theater chain last year and Wang pointed out to the Associated Press that he imagines the company will operate on a vertical-integration model, owning the means of production, screening and distribution for the movies they create. In the early Hollywood studio system, that model was typical (studios made movies and also owned theaters), although it’s been illegal in the United States for about 60 years, since the Paramount anti-trust case broke up the studios.

The potential similarities don’t stop there.

In recent years, China’s approach toward policing film production has drawn raised eyebrows. Wang himself said that filmmakers who “cooperate with China” stand to profit. Hollywood seems willing to play, recutting Iron Man 3 for Chinese audiences and offering a version of Looper that included more footage of Shanghai. (On the other hand, movies like Skyfall have suffered in China for failing to pass muster with censors.)

In August, China cracked down on local independent films and ordered the cancellation of the Beijing Independent Film Festival. Western industry writers have criticized Hollywood insiders who have cooperated with Chinese censors and, even when China announced in July that censorship rules would be relaxed, filmmakers expressed doubt over whether the so-called easing of regulations would translate into any tangible differences.

But it’s not like Hollywood hasn’t been there before: the studio-system era exited at the same time as the Hays Production Code, which exerted a huge influence on moral rectitude of American movies. And while state censorship for political reasons is a different animal from industry censorship for moral reasons, that the Hays code even existed demonstrates how profit and industry can chip away at free expression. When it comes to that possible Hollywood-Qingdao parallel, following in California’s footsteps would mean big changes for China.

(MOREChina Acts to Chill Interest in Independent Films)