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Transformers woo China as Michael Bay defies critics with box office hit

Transformers on track to become China’s highest-grossing film ever

Michael Bay's films are not exactly known for their poignant dialogue. In fact, there's very little dialogue and performances are usually flat, to say the least.

There are, however, lots of explosions, car crashes and giant robots. But you'd be a fool to underestimate Mr Bay, because if there's one thing he knows, it's how to make money by blowing things up.

Transformers: Age of Extinction, which our own film critic described as “meaningless mayhem on screen”, has made $575 million worldwide in less than two weeks, according to box office tracking firm Rentrak.

That's partly because Mr Bay, described by critics as a 13-year old trapped in the body of a man, has succeeded where others have failed: China's box office.

With much fanfare, the Transformers hosted three premieres in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong with a strong Chinese angle aimed at wooing local audiences. The film also features actress Li Bingbing, footage of Chinese landmarks and local brands. It also plays it safe.

There isn't a single line in the film that could upset Chinese authorities, in fact, Beijing will be pleased to see there is a scene where a Hong Kong official shouts: "We need to call the central government for help now!" as giant robots threaten to destroy mankind.

And the plan has worked as Age of Extinction is on track to become the highest-grossing film in China’s box office history, taking in $212 million since it premiered on 27 June, coinciding with its American release, which also conquered the number one spot at the US box office.

Despite the title, there is no sign the Transformers are anywhere near extinction and Mr Bay is laughing all the way to the bank.

The 30 Second Briefing: Transformers

Transformers have returned to the big screen. I thought they became extinct?

No, in fact, they’re bigger and stronger than ever. The fourth instalment of the robot franchise directed by Michael Bay, the man who brought us Transformers 1,2,3 and is known for his action blockbusters, has made $575 million worldwide in less than two weeks and is on track to become China’s highest-grossing film ever

Wow, that’s a lot of money. What are critics saying?

Well, they’re not exactly loving it. In fact, it is the worst rated film of the Transformers saga with some critics describing it as  “meaningless mayhem on screen” with little dialogue and too many explosions. But film goers around the world seem to be loving it, particularly in China.

China? Tell me more.

With much fanfare, Paramount, the studio behind the film, put in place a marketing strategy with a strong focus on China. The film hosted three premieres in the country, including Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong, and it features Chinese actors, locations and products. Don’t be surprised if you see an advert for Lenovo followed by a huge explosion while Mark Wahlberg, the star of the film, tries to save mankind from extermination.

But why is China so important for Hollywood?

The country  boasts 11,000 film screens and the number is expected to double by 2050. And while piracy remains a problem, China is already the second-largest film market in the world after the US and it expected to overtake the American box office in terms of ticket sales by 2020, according to a recent study by EY. Hollywood is taking note and looking for new opportunities across emerging markets, in particular China, Russia and India, sometimes writing small parts for native actors and editing a different version for local audiences.

Who else has done this?

Just to name a few,  Marvel Studios edited a “Chinese” version of Iron Man 3 featuring actress Fan Bingbing, who played a young doctor that helps save Robert Downey Jr in a scene that was cut from the original version seen elsewhere. In Mission Impossible 4- Ghost Protocol, Indian superstar Anil Kapoor played a rich businessman who comes face to face with Tom Cruise and his team of super spies.

Does it always pay off?

Well, that depends. Critics argue Hollywood is playing it too safe and editing a “suitable” version for local audiences amounts to censorship, while others claim that the parts for local actors are too small and often play up to stereotypes.