The Transformer: From Fan Boy to Producer
Sitting in an Italian restaurant in West Hollywood, surrounded by starlet wannabes, Tom DeSanto flashes the giant S on his Superman T-shirt as testimony to his well-earned status as a "fan boy." The 38-year-old DeSanto loves comics—he has 35,000 of them, neatly arranged in boxes, some at his nearby home, others at his dad's place in New Jersey. He got the first when he was a toddler, his mom told him, and as he browses through Meltdown Comics across Sunset he rattles off story lines about Superman, Batman, the Flash, and even the fiercely patriotic Captain America, as well as the names of the artists who brought them to life.
A comic book nut? Sure. But that's what has put DeSanto, the son of a New Jersey policeman, on the fast track in Hollywood. His résumé includes helping to write the story line for Fox's (NWS) first X-Men flick and producing the second. He helped get Battlestar Galactica back on the air.
His latest movie, Transformers, which DeSanto is producing along with some guy named Spielberg (as in Steven), is set for release on July 3 and just may be one of this summer's biggest hits—right up there with that hooded guy swinging from webs, and a swaggering, half-drunk pirate.
According to the online measurement service Hitwise, the number of searches Transformers is getting on the Net is blowing away Bruce Willis' Live Free or Die Hard, which opens four days before DeSanto, Spielberg, and director Michael Bay unleash their form-changing machines who come to earth to continue their intergalactic battle. The studio tracking numbers put a likely opening weekend right about where Pirates of the Caribbean opened in 2003—which was $46 million back then on its way to $305 million— numbers that will make a lot of folks in Hollywood giddy.
But Transformers is a fan boy's idea of nirvana. DeSanto says he used to scribble comic book drawings on the back of his science notebooks and would rush home after school in the '80s to catch afternoon comics on the tube, including Transformers, which ran from 1984 to 1987. Weaned on the boob tube fight between the heroic Autobots and the evil Decepticons, DeSanto saw big-screen potential in machines that can transform themselves into robot-like warriors—even when the rest of Hollywood had long forgotten the animated TV show.
DeSanto's biggest coup was working a deal with Hasbro (HAS), the company that makes Transformers and continued to control its movie rights. Hasbro must have liked the smooth-talking, sunny-faced DeSanto. At the time, Hasbro was coming out of a financial dry spell and was wowed by the new life a movie had given to Spiderman, says Hasbro Chief Operating Officer Brian Goldner. After De Santo talked up the brand, his fascination with the characters, and where he figured he could take them, the toy company gave him an option to go out and find a Hollywood deal.
"I came in there with a character outline for what could be a franchise," says DeSanto. "And I told them that I would be true to the integrity of the characters."
Of course, it didn't hurt that Hasbro saw megabuck license fees and toy royalties provided DeSanto could bring Transformers to the big screen. But Hollywood didn't share their enthusiasm. Every studio passed when DeSanto along with fellow producer Don Murphy, another comic book lover who DeSanto brought into the project, made the pitch.
"Most of the heads of the studios were raised on Superman and Batman," he says. "They didn't know anything about the fan base that loved Transformers."
DeSanto's breakthrough was in getting the idea in December, 2003, to one of Spielberg's top lieutenants, Michael de Luca, then production chief of DreamWorks. De Luca, a fan of graphic novels (aka violent comic books, mostly for adults), agreed to show the Transformers proposal to a couple of his young pup development executives, DeSanto says.
But DeSanto was anxious to get the deal done, recalls Hasbro COO Goldner, who had also given the Transformers assignment to Lorenzo di Bonaventura, a long-time Warner Bros. top executive who was on his own and had a "first look" deal to bring the movie first to Paramount. Goldner says di Bonaventura wanted to make movies based on both Hasbro's G.I. Joe and Transformers. (He says G.I. Joe is still a possibility.) Di Bonaventura, whose track record includes helping Warner launch The Matrix, had watched younger siblings play with Transformers and also saw hot movie potential. After several rejections at Paramount, di Bonaventura got Paramount to give him the okay. That came within a few days of DeSanto getting the green light from Dreamworks, says Goldner.
Eventually, the two studios—which had made several movies together, including Spielberg's 2005 War of the Worlds—joined forces. Dreamworks took the U.S. rights and Paramount the foreign rights to distribute the movie. (Paramount has since acquired Dreamworks' live action unit.)
By 2004, Spielberg brought in Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the writing team behind Dreamworks' 2005 film The Island to redo the script, and then action director Michael Bay. The key dramatic device—a boy with his car, in this case, a Camaro named Bumble Bee came directly from Spielberg himself. With the script in place, Bay signed 20-year-old Shia LeBeouf (and lucked out when he became one of Hollywood's hottest young actors when Dreamworks' creepy flick Disturbia was released earlier this year).
Dreamworks also enlisted George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic special effects shop to bring those transforming machines to life. The budget? A mere $147 million—cheap for a special-effects blockbuster wannabe. (And slightly above its original $145 million price tag million, thanks to some added special effects that Spielberg wanted.)
Transformers has since gone into overdrive, with heavyweight promotional partners like Burger King (BKC), Mountain Dew (PEP), and General Motors (GM) signed on to help promote the flick and wall-to-wall trailers to make sure everyone knows its coming. And DeSanto? He was busy making sure that the wheels kept moving. When the film was in production, he says, his role was to maintain a vigil on the set in his role as "guardian of the Transformer mythology." After all, that's what a fan boy does.