Wanda Group said Tuesday it is buying Hollywood's Legendary Entertainment, the maker of films such as the Batman films, for $3.5 billion US in the first Chinese acquisition of a major U.S. film company.

Wanda — whose chairman, Wang Jianlin, is one of China's richest businesspeople — has expanded rapidly into the film industry. It bought the U.S. cinema chain AMC in 2012 and is developing an $8 billion studio complex in eastern China.

New but cash-rich Chinese companies are on a buying spree abroad in industries, from finance to yacht building, for assets that can speed their development at home and help them expand in global markets.

With its latest acquisition, Wanda's film businesses will include a full range of production, distribution and exhibition, Wang said in a statement. The company, headquartered in the northeastern port city of Dalian, also has interests in hotels, retailing and real estate.

Legendary's productions include the Batman trilogy, Inception and The Hangover. The company says its movies have grossed more than $12 billion worldwide.

"Wanda will help Legendary increase its market opportunities, especially in the fast-growing China market," said Wang.

China a promising entertainment market

Wanda's latest purchase is the fourth-largest Chinese investment in the United States, according to Dealogic, a financial information provider. It ranks behind WH Group Ltd.'s $7 billion acquisition of pork packer Smithfield Foods in 2013, the Chinese sovereign wealth fund's 2007 purchase of a 9.9 per cent stake in Morgan Stanley for $5.6 billion and Unisplendour Corp.'s offer of $3.7 billion this year for 15 per cent of Western Digital Corp.

Global film, music and television companies see China and its increasingly prosperous population of 1.3 billion potential viewers as one of their most promising markets. Even as economic growth slows, China's consumer spending is expanding faster than that of the United States and other Western markets.

Ticket sales in China, already one of the world's biggest movie markets, rose nearly 50 per cent last year to 44 billion yuan (about $6.8 billion US), according to Nomura. It said in a Jan. 7 report that total revenue is forecast to rise another 25 per cent this year.

China Wanda Legendary Entertainment

Wanda chairman Wang Jianlin applauds during an event at a hotel in Beijing in June 2013. Wanda's purchase of Legendary Entertainment is billed as China's biggest foreign cultural acquisition to date. (Ng Han Guan/Associated Press)

Wang, 62, ranked as China's richest businessperson last year, with a net worth of $34 billion, according to the Hurun Report, which follows China's wealthy.

Chinese companies invested $11 billion in the United States over the past year, according to data gathered by Derek Scissors, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. The total since 2005 stands at $93.3 billion.

Many acquisitions abroad are aimed at obtaining technology or brands to expand the buyer's market share in China or to capture profit from foreign goods and services flowing into China.

On Monday, China's biggest chemical company, state-owned ChemChina, announced it has bought a German maker of machinery to process rubber and plastic, KraussMaffei, for $1 billion (925 million euros). It was the biggest Chinese investment to date in Germany.

In August, Wanda paid $650 million for the Florida company that operates the Ironman triathlon race, World Triathlon Corp., and said it planned to promote the growth of competitions in China. Last February, Wanda paid $1.2 billion (1 billion euros) for Swiss sports management company Infront Sports & Media.

In contrast to Western companies that cut staff after purchases, Chinese buyers keep employees and sometimes hire more because they want foreign skills and experience.

Wanda said Legendary's Thomas Tull would remain chairman and chief executive, with responsibility for day-to-day operations.

"Wanda and Legendary will create a completely new international entertainment company," said Tull in the Wanda statement.