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Exclusive: Universal in early talks on China park, joint venture

/ Source: Reuters

Tianjin, China's sixth-largest city, has held preliminary talks with Comcast Corp's NBC Universal about a joint venture to build a theme park in the port city, according to the head of a Chinese trade delegation visiting Los Angeles.

The Tianjin city government also intends to meet at a later date with other Hollywood studios, angling to become the latest to partner with U.S. media conglomerates and develop entertainment for China's growing consumer base, while fostering a future generation of local filmmakers.

"We are establishing a center for culture and creativity and we want to become partners with the biggest and best companies in this area," Tianjin Vice Mayor Cui Jindu said through an interpreter in a phone interview with Reuters. "They have a lot of experience in this."

It can take years to hammer out theme park agreements in China, as Walt Disney Co learned with its Shanghai endeavor. Several cities, including Beijing, have reportedly vied in past years for such high-profile investments, eyeing the prestige attached to a major global tourist attraction.

The Chinese official, part of a delegation in Los Angeles on Academy Awards weekend, convened at the home of Joan Dangerfield, the widow of comedian Rodney Dangerfield.

Dangerfield is a partner in the Beverly Hills-based consultant, Opus 73, that links foreign investors with U.S. companies.

Cui did not indicate that a deal with Universal was imminent, but he said Tianjin -- city of about 10 million within easy distance of Beijing -- could partner with the major Hollywood company to build a theme park and perhaps even a studio.

"There are still hurdles to overcome," he said, adding that his city was prepared to provide a financial contribution to any joint venture created. Any partnership would also need regulatory approval.

The Chinese delegation intends to make initial contact with other studios and will talk with other companies in addition to Universal before making a decision.

"We want to talk with Warner Brothers, with Disney and others," he said. "We are at the beginning of this."

Universal declined to comment.

Other Hollywood studios have recently formed alliances with Chinese companies and governmental units.

On February 17, "Kung Fu Panda" creator DreamWorks Animation SKG said it planned to build a production studio in Shanghai in a deal that was announced while Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping was visiting Los Angeles, wrapping up a U.S. trip.

Last April, Disney broke ground on a $4.4 billion resort in Shanghai that will include a theme park and hotels, and be majority-owned by three large state-owned media or construction companies.

In May, Tianjin itself opened a $690 million animation studio to help boost its local animation industry.

The Chinese delegation, which arrived two days before the annual Academy Awards ceremony, had no plans to attend the Oscars event itself, Cui said.

"But we will attend some of the peripheral events," he added.