Box office transformed

Fourth instalment of robot blockbuster set to break Chinese records

U.S. actress Nicola Peltz poses on the red carpet as she arrives for the world premiere of the film "Transformers: Age of Extinction" in Hong Kong

Transformational role? Nicola Peltz at the global premiere in Hong Kong

Michael Bay is clearly not a man to bear grudges. Regular readers may recall that he was accosted by triads in Hong Kong last year (see WiC213). But that didn’t deter the director from returning to the city late last month. He brought the entire cast of Transformers: Age of Extinction – which stars Mark Wahlberg, Nicola Peltz and Li Bingbing – with him. “It’s the perfect location to unveil the film ahead of its worldwide opening. I hope the people of Hong Kong and China will enjoy how we’ve showcased much of the region’s unique and iconic scenery in the movie,” Bay said of the fourth Transformers instalment.

But Bay’s decision riled Chinese property developer Pangu. The firm, which owns a hotel in Beijing, accused Paramount, the studio behind the Transformers franchise, of failing to live up to a sponsorship deal. Pangu, which WiC first featured in issue 225, claimed that Paramount had agreed to feature its dragon-shaped Pangu Seven Star Hotel in the film, as well as in surrounding promotional activity. According to the China Daily, the contract also stated that the movie’s premiere would be hosted at the hotel. In return, the Chinese would pay Rmb10 million ($1.6 million) and provide accommodation for the film crew during their stay in China.

Shortly before opening night, Pangu complained to Xinhua that the scenes featuring its hotel didn’t add up to the 20 seconds promised in the contract. It was also offended that Paramount opted for Hong Kong to host its premiere. So it launched a lawsuit and asked Chinese regulators to postpone the film’s release until the scenes featuring its property were edited out completely.

Paramount opted for damage control, switching a replica of the giant Bumblebee Transformer robot from another part of Beijing to Pangu’s hotel lobby. Then there was a hastily convened press conference at the hotel, which Bay attended. “It was unfortunate that we had this misunderstanding,” Rob Moore, Paramount’s vice chairman, told the Chinese media. “Pangu has been a great partner for us. We’ve taken steps to put this behind us, we’ve worked through all of the issues, and we’re excited that Pangu is now excited to support us.” Bay, too, was careful to compliment the Chinese partner: “As a director, working with Pangu Palace was fantastic,” he said, misidentifying the property (he also blooped in referring to Beijing’s iconic Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium as the “Bird’s Cage”). “I want to put all this misunderstanding aside and just celebrate the great movie we shot in China.”

With that last minute hitch over, Transformers 4 then went on to blow away the Chinese box office. It took in over $90 million last weekend alone, contributing roughly half of the international gross and nearly matching its US debut. In doing so it dethroned James Cameron’s Titanic 3D (released 2012) for the biggest weekend opening, according to Mtime.com, a Chinese film-rating site. Jiefang Daily reckons that it won’t be long before the film breaks through the Rmb2 billion barrier at the box office.

While many of the reviews for the film in the US have been scathing, Chinese moviegoers have awarded it high ratings. On Douban, a popular film site, users gave it a 7 (out of 10). In comparison, Rotten Tomatoes, a US movie review site, rated it at 18%, which is pretty rotten by any standard.

Similar to the previous Transformers flicks, there were plenty of Chinese reference points in the movie. A third of the film takes place in China and Hong Kong; Chinese star Li Bingbing has a fairly major role; boy band singer-turned-actor Han Geng even gets a one-liner; and four wannabe actors won spots playing minor characters after winning a reality show contest in China last year arranged by Paramount.

Product placement features strongly too. Yili’s Shuhua milk makes another appearance (it was in the last two films) and an ATM machine from China Construction Bank also has a cameo. Li Bingbing drives a flashy Trumpchi, a sedan made by Guangzhou Auto, that outruns rivals like an Audi and a BMW in a car-chase scene.

But probably the most bizarre tie-up is with Zhouheiya, a company that specialises in duck neck (a popular local snack). “Snacks and films are a perfect fit, much like beer and football,” says Annie Li, who handles Zhouheiya’s public relations. But like Pangu, Zhouheiya’s appearance in the film seemed something of an anti-climax. All viewers got was the briefest of glimpses of a box of duck neck on top of a fridge.

It was all so fleeting that many moviegoers completely missed it. “I kept my eyes glued to the screen for more than two hours waiting for Zhouheiya to make an appearance but couldn’t find it. Where did the duck’s neck go?” one disgruntled fan of the snack complained.

The company admits to the Wuhan Morning Post that Paramount never revealed how the brand was going to be featured in Transformers 4. “After watching the film we were a little disappointed,” a spokesman acknowledged. “But no matter, our intention to leverage Transformers 4 to expand the brand globally is now fulfilled.”

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