The Transformers Dilemma

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Earlier in the year director Michael Bay announced that the fifth Transformers film: The Last Knight, would be the last he would be in charge of. Now while lead actor Mark Wahlberg has suggested that Bay might indeed return after he’s had some time away, it marks an interesting fork in the road for the profitable franchise. Despite rolling in cash since the original’s release in 2007, the series have struggled to garner any critical acclaim. They’re constantly the target of hate and vitriol for the style and direction of these films but they still manage to make a lot of money. As long as Michael Bay is behind the series it’s unlikely they’ll move away from his signature style. But if he really is done with the franchise, a decision might need to be made. Does franchise owner Paramount hire someone to continue the Bay style of Transformers movies, or do they use it as a chance to do something different, and maybe try and change the critical perception of the series?

To get an idea of just how despised this series is from a critical perspective, one just has to look at Rotten Tomatoes. At the time of writing three of the five movies have a lower than 20% rating, with the highest being the original at just 57%. While the critical opinion of a movie doesn’t always reflect the general movie-going audience, it does hold a measure of importance when considering the pop culture value a series can possess. And right now, Transformers is the butt of a lot of jokes.

And if we’re being honest, the series might not have to make drastic changes to turn the franchise’s legacy. One just has to look to another massive action series to see how things can change. The Fast and Furious is now eight movies in, and it wasn’t until the fifth that public perception really began to change. Though the audience ratings are consistently higher for those earlier films on Rotten Tomatoes than the Transformers films, it wasn’t until Fast Five that it started to improve in the eyes of the critics. And incidentally, it also began to make a lot more money.

There is a clear divide in the style of the pre and post Rock Fast and Furious films, but it’s not unreasonable to think the Transformers series couldn’t do the same, and find a middle ground with critics between dumb action and fun action. But to get there, the series will have to change its direction. And when the last two movies in your franchise have made over a billion at the box office, it’s understandable if Paramount are content to keep churning out poorly received films that end up being anything but poor financially.

But while the series is still quite profitable, there are signs it’s on a downturn. Transformers: The Last Knight has earned the lowest domestic opening weekend of the series’ history – $10 million lower than the 2007 original and well over $30 million shy than the next lowest on the list. And the film prior – Age of Extinction – performed notably worse in America than the three before it.

But America isn’t the only country that matters here. While the American market for the series is declining, the international box office continues to go strong.

China is the big outlier here, and as a fast rising and entertainment hungry market, it’s an important demographic to consider when talking about the financial viability of a film franchise. The Last Knight is on pace to clear a $100 million opening weekend in China, which is a 69% increase on the previous movie’s success over there. While the American market is slowing down, the Chinese market is more than making up for it. A market with substantially more people to not only sell movies to, but sell merchandise to as well.

It might come to a point where Paramount needs to decide which demographic to focus on. While the American market might be declining, the Chinese market might help ensure the Transformers movies continue to make bank. Age of Extinction is the second most successful of the Transformers films when considering worldwide numbers . If The Last Knight can emulate this, from a financial perspective the franchise isn’t broken. And even if it is decreasing the American turnout for these movies aren’t horrible.

If Michael Bay is leaving, Paramount are at a fork in the road. Can they change up the franchise in a way that will keep the Chinese market coming in droves while re-establishing the American demographic? It might be safer to lean on the acceptance of the newer market instead.

There’s one final important thing to consider. While the Transformers series is proving to be incredibly popular in China, it doesn’t bring Paramount the same kind of money as similar success in America would. Quartz Media explains the way the Chinese box office system is structured for foreign films:

China sets strict annual quotas on the number of foreign “imported” films screened in commercial movie theaters each year, and grants studios only 25% of the box-office revenue as their take, compared to the standard 50% in the US, and 40% in most other countries.

As a result, despite the country’s massive consumer market and growing appetite for the cinema, film producers reap a relatively small percentage of a movie’s success there. Calculations by China Film Insider revealed that throughout 2016, the 32 films imported into China generated a total of $6.5 billion in revenue worldwide—but they generated just $500 million in China, or less than 8% of the total.

What that means is that an American film needs to make twice the money in China to match the same return it would receive domestically. It could be argued that the push into China we’re seeing from film companies is less about the immediate financial rewards, but more about claiming early ground in a burgeoning market – and a market that is predicted to loosen the restrictions on imported films. But it does mean that the immediate success in China that Transformers have enjoyed isn’t actually as profitable for Paramount as one might initially think.

This means Paramount are in an interesting dilemma. Do they try and help the series evolve like the Fast and Furious series did (which is also performing incredibly well in China), or does it continue down the path it is currently going down and hope that if they do need to bring in a new director, that Michael Bay spirit still lives on? No doubt critics will be wishing for the former, but the decision isn’t so cut and dry. Finding that middle ground that appeases critics and the general audience is easier said than done, and the process could alienate what fans they already have. But the Hollywood blockbuster market is becoming increasingly packed – and as more foreign movies make their way into China there’s a chance Transformers becomes lost in the shuffle.




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