On a sweltering day this summer, a handful of protesters gathered outside an AMC movie theater in Times Square, holding red signs proclaiming “AMC = American Movie Communists.” They were opposing the giant movie theater company AMC’s $1.2 billion purchase of a rival cinema chain, Carmike, which has theaters in 41 states. The deal, which is still subject to government approval, would make AMC the largest theater chain in the United States.
The protesters targeted AMC’s Chinese owners — the sprawling Chinese real estate and entertainment company called Dalian Wanda that acquired the American movie chain in 2002, creating the world’s largest theater empire. The protest suggested the Carmike acquisition would further extend Beijing’s hidden control over American mass media.
But the protesters had not gathered on their own volition. They were being paid to be there by a Washington lobbying firm, Berman and Company, waging a war against Chinese acquisitions of American movie theaters.
It was one of the many unexpected ways a quiet battle is under way to halt a trend of Chinese businesses gobbling up American companies. The battle’s reach now goes beyond traditional areas with obvious national security implications — such as President Obama’s recent decision to block the acquisition of a semiconductor company with sensitive technology — into more surprising areas like movie theaters, where concerns about financial ownership collide with issues of cultural openness.
Berman and Company, which uses a network of organizations to carry out campaigns on behalf of anonymous clients, is led by Rick Berman, a veteran lobbyist who “60 Minutes” once called “Dr. Evil” for his defense of issues like secondhand smoke, trans-fats, tanning beds and payday loans. For decades, his firm has launched ad campaigns to attack targets like the Humane Society, labor unions and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
The new campaign, called “China Owns Us,” is nominally run by the Center for American Security, a registered trade name for a 501(c) 4 nonprofit called the Enterprise Action Committee, according to Washington, D.C., corporate records. A small group of people employed by Berman’s K Street lobbying office run these and dozens of other similarly structured organizations, Berman said in an interview.
To drum up opposition to Chinese acquisitions in Hollywood, Berman’s operatives purchased two billboards this summer calling AMC “China’s Red Puppet” — one on Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard, another outside AMC’s Kansas headquarters. Berman and his groups wrote opinion pieces, produced YouTube videos, appealed to think tanks and hired a lobbyist to reach out to Congress, Berman said, to warn people of China’s insidious influence.
Berman says he fears that Dalian Wanda could use its theater screens to subtly influence people’s views about the U.S. and China. He compares political messages in movies to a can of Coca-Cola sitting on the table in a film, or James Bond driving an Aston Martin.
“What I’m trying to do is stop somebody else from managing the culture here,” Berman says.
AMC’s chief executive, Adam Aron, said those concerns were unwarranted.
“AMC is completely run by its American management in Leewood, Kansas, as American as an American place in the heartland you can find,” he said. “We’re in the business of selling movie tickets and popcorn, and we don’t involve ourselves in what goes on in China.”
Berman says he has helped foment concern on Capitol Hill about the issue. In September, 16 Congressmen sent a letter asking the government to re-examine the role of a federal committee known as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., or CFIUS, in determining whether deals like Wanda’s takeover of AMC and Carmike undermine national security. Another congressman sent a letter urging the Justice Department to reconsider whether Chinese media influence should be regulated under the same rules as foreign lobbying.