Transformers and the Age of Summer Blockbusters With Chinese Characteristics

Transformers: Age of Extinction Photograph by Industrial Light & Magic/Paramount Pictures via Everett Collection

Hollywood long ago stopped asking if it will play in Peoria. Paramount Pictures, like just about everyone else selling mass-market products, wants to make sure it plays in Chongqing—and the studio’s latest film passed that test. Sometime this week the Transformers reboot will pass $222 million in sales at Chinese theaters, besting a record set by Avatar in 2010. The film, it’s worth noting, is a critical flop that barely topped such other recent blockbusters as Godzilla and Captain America: Winter Soldier in its home market.

Part of the success can be attributed to the sheer scale of the Chinese movie market. China’s total box office revenue last year surged 27 percent, to $3.6 billion, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. Infrastructure is no longer a challenge for Hollywood’s efforts in the Far East. Transformers: Age of Extinction opened in 4,400 theaters in China, more than the 4,233 locations in the U.S. Paramount’s fighting robots are making more money on a per-theater basis in China as well.

The results are impressive, and they should be since Paramount went to great lengths to prime Chinese crowds to swoon for Optimus Prime and company. Four of the film’s actors were cast via a Chinese reality show, some of the action is actually set in the People’s Republic, and the Transformer’s marketing machine has been churning away in China for weeks.

Back in the U.S, it’s getting harder to lure Americans into the megaplex. The domestic box office in June was $1.04 billion, down 16 percent from the year-earlier period. Ticket sales this past weekend, which included the critical July 4th holiday, sagged to record lows. The top 12 films in theaters pulled in almost one-third less money than last year’s offerings on the same weekend. Americans, it seems, have joined much of the planet in choosing soccer over cinema.

What does this mean for fans of blockbuster films? Expect more Chinese stars and Great Wall fight scenes. More evidence supporting the Transformers strategy can be found in last year’s The Lone Ranger, a tent-pole disaster. That movie had a lot of problems, but a lack of foreign interest was a major factor. Lawmen with six-shooters, it seems, don’t travel as well as robots with giant swords.

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