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Universal Studios Shows Beijing the Business

Asia: Although modest by U.S. standards, a Hollywood multimedia and shopping site marks the entry of entertainment complexes into China.

October 07, 1998|ANTHONY KUHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

BEIJING — With the opening of Universal Studios Experience Beijing last month, residents of the Chinese capital got their first taste of a Hollywood entertainment complex.

But visitors relishing the prospect of theme parks and thrill rides may find themselves hungry for more satisfying fare. Universal's toehold in China is essentially just a multimedia exhibit, a store and a restaurant in a shopping mall.

However modest, the facility marks Hollywood's first foray into "location-based" entertainment in China.

"We felt now was the time for a statement and an investment in the future," or at least a "physical presence" in China's growing entertainment market, Universal Studios Recreation Group Chief Executive Cathy Nichols said at Experience Beijing's opening.

Universal executives would not disclose the amount of their investment but said it was a "multimillion-dollar" project equivalent to a low-budget Hollywood movie.

At China's current level of economic development, a full-scale theme park would be unfeasible. But Hollywood companies are gradually finding ways to probe the market and introduce their products without big, financially risky investments.

Warner Bros., for example, has recently begun licensing its movie titles on the video CD format popular in China, while Disney has opened stores selling its merchandise in several cities.

And despite depressed economies in the region, Asian markets are a key target of Hollywood companies' international development plans.

Included in Universal's planned $2.5-billion expansion in the region is a 140-acre theme park, complete with "E.T. Adventure," "Jaws" and "Back to the Future' rides, due to open in Osaka, Japan, in 2001. Disney has sent a mobile "Disney Fest" with games and shows to Singapore and plans an aquatic-oriented DisneySea park on Tokyo Bay.

The Beijing facility is a joint venture between Universal Studios Recreation Group and the mainland China arm of Hong Kong real estate developers Henderson Land Development Co., whose diversified holdings, the company says, account for around 4% of the Hong Kong stock market's capitalization.

The 20,000-square-foot entertainment center is in the atrium of the Henderson Center, a sprawling complex of upscale offices, apartments and shops covering a large block of downtown Beijing. Until recently, the area was a bustling warren of cheap restaurants and stores frequented by peasants and travelers emerging from the Stalinist architecture of the old Beijing railway station.

Now, for the equivalent of less than $4--roughly what it costs to see a Hollywood movie in Beijing--visitors can buy tickets to Universal's main attraction, the "Hollywood Adventure."

This walk-through "ride" is composed of three main rooms showing videos that explain the pre- and post-production and filming of Universal pictures that have shown in China in recent years, including "Jurassic Park," "Waterworld" and "Dante's Peak."

The rooms are packed full of movie props, including the pickup truck driven by Pierce Brosnan in "Dante's Peak." Guests hear through heavily amplified roars from a Tyrannosaurus rex, a few loud, metallic clanks, and pass through dry ice fog simulating volcanic dust. ("Can't you turn that stuff off?" one Chinese journalist attending the opening pleaded.)

Visitors emerge into a chamber with decor suggesting a movie premiere and then wander through a Universal merchandise store with stuffed Babe the Pig and Woody Woodpecker toys--all made in China, of course.

The entertainment center also includes a photo shop where customers have their pictures taken against movie backdrops, and a Southern California-style refreshment area where guests sit among replicas of surfboards and navel oranges under a towering bank of video monitors trumpeting Universal's latest creations.

The venue's low price puts it within financial reach of Beijing's upper-middle class, who are replete with the high-tech trappings of affluence but lack family diversions of the "edu-tainment" variety.

While many Chinese tourist sites include theme park-like attractions, they tend to be so shoddily constructed and tacky that even the official Chinese press pans them.

In the long run, building Orlando-style theme parks in China may take more than just economic development.

In China, American movies and television programming are still strictly limited by quotas, reflecting the long-standing determination of Chinese officials to limit foreign cultural influences.

As a result, many Chinese do not recognize the cinematic icons displayed at Universal's attraction, from John Wayne to the Bride of Frankenstein.

"We are acutely aware that we must work within the context of the Chinese cultural environment," noted Brian McGrath, international president of Universal Studios Recreation Group.

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