While some in the industry worry that moviegoing will eventually cave into in-home streaming, Transformers franchise producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura offered up a pragmatic perspective.
“It’s a little daunting right now for us to know where we’re headed. There are increasing reasons to draw attention to other things,” said di Bonaventura about the video games and social media that pull the younger males away from the cinema. However, “We still have the advantage of spectacle.”
He made his statements today at the U.S. China Film & Television Industry Expo (UCFTI) at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
“That’s why the movie business has shifted to spectacles, because you can’t replicate that experience in a home environment,” said di Bonaventura.
In regards to pulling more young males into movie theaters, di Bonaventura thinks that the lack of R-rated films might have something to do with it.
“Growing up, I wouldn’t be caught in a PG-13 film. When I was in my late teens, I wanted to see R-rated movies. That’s created a problem (the lack of R-rated movies) with young males. We don’t have the product to attract them. They play visceral video games. Movies like Transformers or (the upcoming) The Meg provide spectacle and there’s a certain toughness to them. I’ve been reflecting on that for the movie business to be really relevant,” said di Bonaventura.
The former Warner Bros. President of Worldwide Production pointed out that when he was growing up, R-rated movies “educated (audiences) on what the world was,” providing a cutting-edge experience. One of his favorite films that influenced him to pursue a career in the movie business: Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, which provided a close-up, shocking view of what the war was like in Vietnam.
Many have speculated that Warner Bros.’ urgency to create a PVOD window stems from its pending merger with AT&T. Asked by the moderator how his former employer’s marriage to AT&T will change movie-making, di Bonaventura responded, “I have no idea. I just hope they let movie professionals do it.”
With Paramount still waiting on Huahua to financially commit to the studio, there’s also been some concern in the industry that China’s interest in Hollywood is waning. But di Bonaventura isn’t that cynical. In regards to China’s interest in Hollywood, “It’s happening,” says the producer. “I think it’s starting and stopping because there are lessons to be learned. We can only accelerate the pace. The more we do it, the more refined we get at it.”
di Bonaventura has pacted with China on a few Transformers movies, i.e. Huahua Media on Transformers: The Last Knight and China Movie Channel on Transformers: Age of Extinction. In those cases, a Transformers film received a certain amount of product placement from the Middle Kingdom, i.e. China’s automobile industry. In such a case, that type of branding contributes money toward a film’s bottom line. It’s different for each movie, whether it goes toward a film’s production cost or P&A. But in a case such as Last Knight, there was $20M of Chinese media perk.
When it comes to the ideal co-production with China, it’s about making those movies which have story-lines that are universal to both sides, not just one. di Bonaventura explains he was pursued to make a remake of the famed Chinese blockbuster The Monkey King. “It’s an incredible mythology, but I don’t understand it all. It’s about finding the cultural overlap.” Juxtapose this with Transformers. It’s one of the few American properties that made it on Chinese TV decades ago before the country’s cultural and commerce walls opened up. Older Chinese audiences have an emotional affinity to Transformers, much in the way that Americans might be drawn to Star Wars, which explains why the franchise has taken off in the Middle Kingdom.
Through five movies, the Transformers franchise has grossed $817M alone in China. The Hasbro movies’ explosion at the box office have been in tandem with the boom of the Middle Kingdom’s exhibition infrastructure, including Imax and 3D. The first Transformers movie ten years ago grossed $37.2M in China, repping only 5% of its $709.7M global gross. Chinese tickets sales hit a peak with 2015’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, raking in $320M, or 29% of its $1.1 billion worldwide haul. This summer’s Transformers: The Last Knight continued to yield strong results in China with $228.8M; an even greater share of the pic’s global ticket sales, 38% of $605.4M.
Bumblebee is expected to refresh the franchise after Last Knight, while not losing the spirit that Michael Bay has hammered out. Last Knight slowed in ticket sales, as the movie was a challenge for more sophisticated audience markets to decipher from its previous installments. Bumblebee is different in that it’s a period piece that takes place in 1987 and will only star four Transformers in total, as opposed to previous’ titles massive robot car ensembles. Bumblebee opens on Dec. 21 next year.
di Bonaventura is also a producer on the upcoming shark movie The Meg, which is poised to be huge in China, further propped by star Jason Statham, who over-indexes there: His thrifty indie genre film Mechanic: Resurrection brought in close to $50M, which was close to half of its $104.5M overseas box office. Flagship Entertainment, China Media Capital division Gravity Pictures, and Warner Bros. Pictures are co-financing The Meg. The pre-historic shark movie hits theaters on Aug 10.
In di Bonaventura’s view, a great co-Chinese production partner on a film will assist early on during script development and throughout the production process on the censorship process and what might upset Chinese officials. “You can guess, but a co-producing partner can help you with that,” said the producer. di Bonaventura provided an example of when they were shooting a Transformers scene in Hong Kong. “They didn’t want the Hong Kong police to be shamed, which was never a concern because it’s a very heroic movie. We didn’t have to bend for that; there’s different criteria for different places,” he added. Of course, aside from any Hollywood studio notes, a Chinese partner provides another set of notes. Early on, the studio will work out with their Chinese partner financially who has the bigger creative vote.
Opening tonight is di Bonaventura’s wilderness firefighter movie, Only the Brave, which he’s shepherded over the last three years. Financed by Black Label Media for $38M and released by Sony, di Bonaventura read the original article, “No Exit,” in GQ about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, and was drawn to their families’ compelling stories. On the surface, the movie might look tragic in the firefighters’ battle against a historic wildfire. But “It kept elevating itself.”
Only the Brave has Chinese distribution and di Bonaventura believes it has a real chance at translating there. “Who doesn’t understand protecting your home? Who doesn’t understand the sense of real life?” says the producer. It harks back to a lesson that di Bonaventura learned while making The Perfect Storm at Warner Bros. when it came to universal storytelling.
“The truer you are to your story, the better the movie is.”