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Forcing the Franchise for Foreign Fans: A ‘Transformers’ Box Office Story

These movies aren’t made for the critics — or anyone else in America anymore.
By  · Published on June 26th, 2017

These movies aren’t made for the critics — or anyone else in America anymore.

It’s nothing new that Hollywood produces a lot of its blockbusters primarily for the foreign markets. Three years ago, Transformers: Age of Extinction was clearly made with Chinese audiences in mind, more so than any others in the world. So, now it should be no surprise that Americans have all but given up on the franchise.

Transformers: The Last Knight took in an estimated $45M in its opening weekend. $45M! Compare that to Age of Extinction‘s $100M, and before that to Dark of the Moon‘s $98M, and before that to Revenge of the Fallen‘s $109M, and before that to the original Transformer‘s $71M. It’s almost a laughing matter.

And that’s before adjusting for inflation (respectively $106M, $109M, $129M, and $91M) or comparing the first week’s debut grosses through first Sunday — The Last Knight, like many of the Transformers movies, opened on a weekday. Its full estimated take through yesterday is still only $69M. Respectively that compares to $106M, $181M, $237M, and $200M.

With reportedly the highest budget of the franchise yet, at $217M, you’d think this was a flop for Paramount. But The Last Knight is still a decent-sized hit in disguise, because of course it still made $196M overseas. That just barely puts the movie in the top 20 highest overseas openings of all time, between the fifth Harry Potter and third Iron Man.

But it is way down from the last two (Age is in 14th place with $202M, Dark is in 10th place with $220M). Where it lost us in North America, though, Transformers understandably gained more fans in China, even without shooting the new movie there or featuring any local pop stars in cameos. The Last Knight did a franchise best in the country, with $123M (Age only debuted there at $92M).

Compared to Age, opening grosses were down in all other foreign markets where it debut this past week: South Korea ($13M vs. $16M), Russia ($9M vs. $21M), the UK ($6M vs. $20M), Germany ($5M vs. $11M), Australia ($4M vs. $8M), Philippines ($3M vs. $6M), Malaysia ($3M vs. $7M), Thailand ($3M vs. $4M), Singapore ($2M vs. $4M), Italy ($2M vs. $4M), and even Hong Kong ($2.5M vs. $5M), where much of Age was shot.

It would seem there’s not just Transformers fatigue in America but all over the globe except for China. The question is: are there still enough fans worldwide, at least in China if it comes down to that, to justify not just the continuation of the Transformers series but a new cinematic universe full of prequels and spin-offs, and more.

Although only one such prequel spin-off is definitely in the works right now, the 1980s-set Bumblebee due in theaters in one year, Paramount has intended to do more. Many writers have been developing possible ideas for other ways to branch out, maybe even cross over with other properties, Michael Bay has revealed there are at least a dozen or so ideas he’d like made, and The Last Knight itself teases a greater scope for the franchise.

Maybe there’s some kind of jinx for Hollywood in announcing plans for a mega-franchise cinematic universe these days. Unless you’re a definite superhero property like Marvel, DC, or X-Men, or of a lower-budget genre like horror (see what The Conjuring has been spawning), there’s no use in forcing ideas like Universal Monsters and Transformers extended universes. Except that they might at least be successful elsewhere.

Universal’s The Mummy is supposed to launch a web of interrelated remakes featuring Frankenstein’s Monster, his bride, the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and more, but that first movie is a box office disappointment. The studio isn’t canceling the plan, but there is certainly concern for the future of the Dark Universe franchise.

Eighty percent of its gross so far has come from overseas, with its highest numbers again coming from China. The Mummy director Alex Kurtzman defended the movie with the old “we made a film for audiences and not critics” line, but that’s not entirely correct. He made a movie for international audiences and not American audiences or critics. The Mummy‘s clear favoring of stunts and spectacle over story on the level that it does so can only be tolerated by viewers with a language barrier who don’t pay attention to the script.

Once upon a time, Hollywood produced separate versions of movies for foreign audiences. Dracula, one of the early Universal Monsters movies, is a famous example where there was an English-language version and a Spanish-language version, as in two distinct movies not just different dubs. It’s almost as if the studios are doing that again today, but they produce a version for China and then nothing for Americans.

Maybe the America version is just Paramount letting us have Arrival and Martin Scorsese’s Silence and whatever the studio has for prestige pictures this fall, as alternatives. The successes of Get Out and, from the looks of this weekend’s terrific per-screen-averages, The Big Sick and The Beguiled are more notable as tentpole sequels, while still generally making more than the indies, are underperforming for their series.

Of course the superhero mega-franchises are still kicking butt as we close out the first half of the year this week with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2Logan, and Wonder Woman all improvements over their most direct franchise counterparts (Guardians has shot past Guardians 1 here and abroad, Logan is the best of the Wolverine-focused X-Men movies and bettered the last main X-Men movie, and Wonder Woman is about to become the top-grossing DC Extended Universe movie domestically).

All three of those were very well-received by critics and audience alike, too. They’re not just blockbuster trash. Unlike Transformers: The Last Knight and The Mummy, they’re good movies. Maybe it’s not true in all areas of life and culture these days, but Americans do have good taste, as is evident in the films we’re choosing to go see in theaters.


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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.