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Wanda Film’s First Woman CEO Chen Zhixi Talks Strategy

Wanda Film’s First Woman CEO Chen Zhixi Talks Strategy

Chen Zhixi is now five months into her role as chairperson and president at Wanda Film. Taking the role was a move that made Chen one of the few women at the top of the traditionally male-dominated Chinese film business — and, at 42, one of its youngest and most powerful leaders.

Based in the southern Chinese tech-hub of Shenzhen, Wanda Film is the largest cinema chain in China, operators of upwards of 900 cinemas with more than 7,500 screens, and a sizable movie production business too.

Chen took the reins at Wanda Film in February as the company transitioned from the control of Chinese billionaire Wang Jianlin and the real estate-heavy Dalian Wanda Group, which sold its 51 percent controlling stake in the film unit to an investment arm of China Ruyi Holdings, which includes film production and streaming services among its various holdings. Local media reported the deal was worth around $310 million.

Back in the 2010s, Wang had made headline-grabbing moves into the global entertainment market beginning in 2012, buying up a series of major international cinema chains, including AMC in the U.S. (for $2.6 billion) and Australian operators Hoyts ($1 billion). He also made a bold play for Hollywood by buying Legendary Entertainment ($3.5 billion).

Chen has brought a wealth of experience to her new position, having graduated out of both Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Drama and the Tsinghua University, where she earned a master’s degree in finance. Having worked previously as an actress in both film (Lost in Thailand) and TV (Miss Unlucky), Chen has also produced domestic hits like the 2021 comedy Hi, Mom, which grossed around $840 million and has been slated for an English-language remake by Sony.

Chen moved into management at Shanghai Ruyi Television Production in 2015, and spent an almost 10-year stretch as president of the company before the February switch.

The Chinese film industry has this week converged on the 26th Shanghai International Film Festival and Chen was among their number over the opening weekend, hosting a Wanda party on The Bund. The Hollywood Reporter connected with the busy exec for a conversation about her plans to revitalize the Wanda film brand.

Can we start by talking about the role you’ve taken on at Wanda? What do you see as the challenges, what excites you, and what’s the specific skill set you’ve brought to the company?

In the past as a film producer I was only responsible for one film during one period. Now I am working at a fully integrated film company and work has become more complex and diverse, so it includes theater management, film and TV series investment production and distribution, merchandising and the company’s gaming business. So, my focus has expanded from the success of a single film to the overall trends through the Chinese film market, as well as from being a producer of a single film to being a service provider for the entire Chinese film industry. I’m very excited to connect with and dedicate myself to the film industry with a wider point of view.

Are there specific challenges you have identified at Wanda?

Chinese cinemas have long lacked diversification, and I hope to bring more unique experiences to our cinemas based on our creativity. I want our cinemas to become a place where directors can hold exhibitions of film, where film fans can gather in movie fan clubs, where more movie merchandise can be sold, and co-branded promotions are available. I want movie lovers to feel like they have entered the world of film once they step into a cinema, and to fully enjoy the charm of movies. The challenges we are facing right now are common to the global film market, which is how can we drive audience growth, especially among younger moviegoers in an era of increasingly diverse entertainment options.

What can you share about the company’s immediate plans in terms of film production?

This summer we’ll see the release of two films we’re involved in, in terms of investment and distribution. The first one is the comedy Successor, starring Shen Teng and Ma Li, which will be released on July 18. The second is the Light Chaser animated film, White Snake 3, which will be released on August 10. In terms of film production, our projects are diverse, which is what we really care about.

‘White Snake 3’

Courtesy of Shanghai Film Fest

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What do you see as Wanda Film’s strengths as a corporation?

Wanda has the largest cinema network coverage in China, and capabilities to promote film culture across the whole country. And we have development and production capabilities. As a producer for several years, my production experience has been quickly integrated. So, from my point of view, the future is to create a high-quality experience for the audience from content production to the viewing. I see this as the unique advantage of Wanda.

A new, younger generation seems to have taken the reins at Wanda. How do you feel about leading this?

We have a history of around 20 years, which almost coincides with the rise of the commercial film industry in China. As a result, we have a very mature and professional management team, and we have also attracted young and talented people from the industry to join Wanda. I am personally passionate about this and creating a young creative team.

Do you see yourself as a role model for Chinese women in the corporate world and in the film world?

Well, I cannot say I’m a role model. I just found my path a little bit early in life. In China, whether in the business world or in the film industry, I want people to see the indispensable role of women. I hope that I can work together with all the women in our industry and to make it better. That is the direction I am aiming for.

What led you into the film industry?

I don’t like conventional paths, and art is full of the unknown and adventure. Initially, I chose the acting department of the Central Academy of Drama. After graduation, I entered the film industry as an actress, but I quickly realized that this was not the field in which I could best use my skills. I discovered that I enjoy organizing and planning as well as creating content. This led me to the role as a producer and investor — and I have finally found my direction and passion.

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