Alibaba leads $1.24 billion investment in film unit of China's Wanda

BEIJING/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Dalian Wanda Group is selling a $1.24 billion stake in its listed film business to a pair of investors led by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd BABA.N, as the conglomerate looks to bring in strategic partners and raise new funds.

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The property-to-entertainment firm will sell the combined 12.77 percent in Wanda Film Holding Co Ltd 002739.SZ to e-commerce giant Alibaba and state-backed Cultural Investment Holdings Ltd 600715.SS for a total of 7.8 billion yuan ($1.24 billion).

The move, hot on the heels of a separate deal to bring in investors to its commercial property unit, highlights a major shift by Wanda towards a streamlined, “asset light” model, amid a broad crackdown in China on high levels of corporate debt.

“Generally speaking, Wanda needs more cash, and every business line needs cash,” said Li Chengdong, a Beijing-based analyst, referring to a cash crunch that has hit Wanda and a number of other major Chinese conglomerates over the past year amid tightening access to credit.

In the latest deal, Alibaba will invest 4.68 billion yuan of the total. Wanda would remain as the controlling shareholder of the firm with a 48.09 percent stake, it said in a statement.

Wanda said the deal would give its film business access to Alibaba’s strength in big data, while Cultural Investment, indirectly controlled by Beijing city’s cultural assets arm, would help to open up tourism-related opportunities.

“The main purpose of the equity transfer of Wanda Film Holding is to bring in shareholders with strategic value,” Wanda said.

Alibaba, which has its own film division as well as businesses from sports and ticketing to online payments, said in a statement the deal reflected the “future development potential” of Wanda Film.

The stake sale will add to the around $16 billion in investment deals that Wanda has announced since last year. In late January, Wanda said its commercial property arm had reached a deal to get a $5.4 billion investment from a group led by tech giant Tencent Holdings 0700.HK.

Wanda, along with other major conglomerates including HNA Group and Fosun International 0565.HK, has faced increased scrutiny of its finances and debts over the past year as Beijing clamps down on what it terms "irrational" overseas deals.

Last month, Wang Jianlin, Wanda’s chairman, said the company had greatly reduced its debt and would use its “limited cash” in developing Wanda Plazas, the group’s core business. He also pledged to reduce Wanda’s corporate debt through all available means to “absolute safe” levels within two or three years.

Wanda Film includes Wanda’s film production, marketing and distribution assets, including over 500 cinemas, but does not include Wanda’s U.S.-based studio Legendary Entertainment and several other film-related assets.

The film unit had operating revenues of 13.2 billion yuan last year, Wanda said in its statement.

($1 = 6.2868 Chinese yuan renminbi)

Reporting by Pei Li and Adam Jourdan. Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Jane Merriman