Bay’s Chinese cash machine

Critics universally pan new Transformer’s movie, but it does well in China


Laura Haddock: making her debut in the latest Transformers flick

The first of Michael Bay’s big-budget Transformers films came out a decade ago. The series was never a favourite for the critics, but moviegoers have flocked to the cinema every time that a new film arrives.

The box office results for the latest instalment in the franchise, The Last Knight, suggest that fans of the robots – which are based on toys created by Hasbro and Tomy – are finally getting robot fatigue.

The film grossed $69.1 million in its five-day debut at the North American box office, rendering it the first in the franchise not to open to $100 million or more.

Paramount, which has suffered a string of flops like Baywatch and Ghost in the Shell, sounded unfazed: “The movie was conceived of for a global audience and it performed for a global audience. You aren’t making the movie with just the US in mind,” said Megan Colligan, president of marketing and distribution.

And thankfully, the studio found more receptive audiences in China, where the film earned Rmb870 million ($128 million) in the first three days after it opened last Friday.

Still, Chinese cinema operators have been concerned that the negative word-of-mouth elsewhere in the world could drag down the film’s takings.

On Douban, the Chinese film and TV series review site, it received 4.9 stars out of 10, which is lower than the ratings for its predecessors.

“Apart from the special effects, there is nothing redeeming about the film,” an audience member wrote on the platform. “In order to accommodate all the CGI and product placements, the script makes zero sense. Most of the audience members around me were either going to the bathroom or checking their phones.”

Another agreed: “The plot is such a mess I have stopped trying to make sense of it. But I’d like to thank all the Chinese investors and advertisers. Without you, we would never have a chance to witness how stupid Hollywood is to make a ‘piece of [expletive]’ like this.”

The plot is certainly a creative one. An academic played by Anthony Hopkins comes up with the unlikely premise that the Transformers helped King Arthur to defeat the barbarians during the Dark Ages. Then throw into the mix the junkyard boss (Mark Wahlberg), his love interest (Laura Haddock playing a British historian), and scenes that Rolling Stone describes as “a bot war with the Nazis”.

“Am I making any sense? The script makes even less. It’s a 148-minute marvel of incoherence,” the the magazine’s reviewer complains.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Transformers film without product placements, and like the previous instalments, The Last Knight features a slew of Chinese brands.

Cash-strapped LeEco is said to have coughed up $4 million to feature its products, which include an electric car, a smartphone and a smart TV, says TMT Post. Vatti, an oven manufacturer, made an appearance in the form of a minor robot character, while state-owned bank ICBC, second-hand car platform Youxin, smartphone maker Meizu and livestreaming platform Inke have all paid for cameo appearances.

“Since the release of the first Transformers film in 2007, the box office taking has only gone up with each new instalment. The first film took Rmb282 million, followed by Rmb428 million, 1.1 billion and Rmb2 billion in the second, third and fourth instalments, respectively. From these figures, it is clear that the Hollywood intellectual property has a huge influence on the China market. So inevitably, domestic Chinese brands believe that product placement in the film could raise awareness with consumers,” one insider told Beijing Business Today.

Chinese distributors were so confident about the blockbuster that they offered Paramount a minimum box office guarantee of Rmb2.6 billion, says Qilu Evening News. That means that even before the film was shown in China, Paramount had received up to Rmb700 million in payments (based on foreign studios’ 25% take at the Chinese box office), which is half of its $217 million production cost.

This follows a trend in which badly reviewed Hollywood blockbusters have been doing better business in China than in their domestic market. Fate of the Furious, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales and Tom Cruise’s reboot of The Mummy have all scored lopsided commercial results. Together, the three have grossed a disappointing $454 million in the US and Canada but a total of $1.8 billion overseas, with $654 million coming from China alone, according to the Wall Street Journal.

This appears to have upset Feng Xiaogang, China’s most commercially successful director. During last week’s Shanghai Film Festival, Feng complained that Chinese moviegoers were to blame for the lower quality films that have hit the cinema in recent years, saying that while people love to make fun of “garbage films” they fail to examine why there are so many of them in the market.

“Have you ever questioned whether it is because you have such a garbage audience that you then get so many garbage movies?” he asked.

“If you don’t go and support them, then they won’t be produced. But right now garbage movies often do very well at the box office.”

Feng’s comments were soon circulating on weibo, with many netizens accusing the director of being hypocritical. “For a while Feng’s films were breaking box office records but they were deemed too low brow [see Personal Tailor, WiC221]. At the time, Feng argued that he was operating according to market principles and giving audiences what they wanted to see. To those who had anything negative to say about his films, he would argue that they were essentially picking a fight with the audience. But now, with his films no longer popular [Feng’s last film was a flop], he blames the audiences for its bad taste,” scoffed Tencent Entertainment.

Michael Bay has long appeared unperturbed by criticism of his Transformers films. But the grim reviews of the latest instalment – Rolling Stone called it “2017’s most toxic movie” – will be the last, as far as the director is concerned. Paramount has now announced that The Last Knight will be Bay’s final film for the franchise. “I’ve done it enough, and I’ve had a great time doing it. I’m going out with a bang on this one, and I feel like you gotta go out while you’re ahead, you know. I think I’ve had a good run,” he said.

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