There’s a rift growing in the world of “Transformers.”
On one side, you have the movie audience, who has shelled out nearly $1.3 billion worldwide for the series since it began in 2007, including the opening weekend grosses for this summer’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction.” On the other, you have critics, who have savaged the movies: none have been “certified fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, with “Age of Extinction” garnering the lowest rating of any of the movies so far.
In the center of that rift is producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who has stewarded all four films along with director Michael Bay. On the eve of “Age Of Extinction” set to dominate theaters for a second weekend, and in the middle of a busy press week in Europe, MTV News got on the phone with di Bonaventura for a candid interview to talk about this divide, how he responds to the biggest criticisms of “Age Of Extinction” and where he sees the franchise going next.
[Note: MTV and Paramount, which releases the “Transformers” films, share a parent company.]
MTV News: First thing, obviously “Age of Extinction” had a gigantic opening weekend. It made over $300 million internationally, and I just read, I believe, that in China its up to $134.5 million, which is even out-pacing North America.
Lorenzo di Bonaventura: Well I mean, you know, you hope for this kind of result, but you don’t really dream it’s possible. That’s the honest truth.
You can be as bullish as you want about your movie, but [these grosses are] sort of unprecedented. We’ve been traveling, I’m in Paris right now we were in Berlin two days ago. And we’re having that kind of experience across the board, where audiences are responding in a really spectacular fashion.
And you never know! Everyone will have their own opinion about why that’s true, but my opinion is that Michael [Bay] has given them an incredible feast. It’s got emotion, it’s got humor, it’s got that “wow-factor” like crazy, and I think the grosses indicate how they’re feeling about it.
MTV: Do you feel like there’s one aspect in particular that either you were surprised to see audiences respond to, or were gratified to find there was an aspect you focused on, and they grabbed onto it in a big way?
Bonaventura: I think the thing that’s been really gratifying is how they’ve responded to Optimus in this movie, because Optimus has been more of an action star than he’s ever been in the past. And to hear the cheers when Optimus jumps on the Dinobots and [says] “Let’s go,” you know, it’s really fun.
The second part is, I would say something slightly unexpected. Which was when we cast Mark Wahlberg, we knew we were adding a movie star, obviously, to the franchise. But I don’t think any of us knew to what extent it would affect the movie, because having a legitimate action star in it allowed us to do things that we’ve never done before.
[It] made the movie a very decidedly different experience because, he can pick up a gun, he can take the fight. So by definition, the humans are suddenly a bigger part of the story.
You know, they can fight alongside the Transformers, as opposed to run, hide, take the object, get it out of here, which was usually the job of the humans up until now. And, suddenly, he’s in the same place.
So I think that’s really transformed the experience in a lot of ways and made it more intimate, because we didn’t have to add lots of humans, and yet the humans play a bigger role.
MTV: Is Wahlberg is that aspect then, the tipping point, which has made this one open so big?
Bonaventura: Mark has had a tremendous impact. I think it [was] a reflection of a pretty bold decision on all of our parts, and particularly Michael, to recast all of the humans in a movie. I just don’t think that’s ever been done before.
There have been things that people call “reboots,” this is not a reboot this is a continuation story. So I don’t think that’s ever been really been done, and I think in a way that’s what we’re seeing is, if you’re a fan of the original series, you’re still a big fan; but now you suddenly have a very different identifiable aspect to the movie. So I think that’s where one plus one, in this case, equals three.
MTV: On the other side of this equation, the critics have been less than kind. I know you’ve gone on the record a little bit about why you think that is, but I’m curious to hear it in your own words.
Bonaventura: There’s a combination of factors. Number one, critics do not understand this kind of movie. They just don’t understand, they don’t get why people like this kind of movie. They’re evaluating a movie like this, that is meant for mass entertainment on a really epic scale, as though it’s a 1970’s Martin Scorsese movie.
There’s just a disconnect there. They seem to look at every film in the same prism—this is a different prism and they don’t accept that. I think also, they just don’t want to have any fun, you know, like come on guys, let’s have a little fun here. We’re not pretending on our side to be making a big social statement or something, our intention is to entertain the audience.
I kind of figure enough critics don’t see these movies with the audience, is my suspicion. Because if they’re with the audience, they cant help but be affected by what they’re hearing and reacting to.
I used to feel that film criticism was a really valuable part of the arsenal of making film better frankly, because they could call you on your this or that. And they could encourage you when you make a fault, when something was flawed, they could look at what was good.
Pauline Kael, Vincent Canby, those critics, even if they didn’t like the movie they would embrace what was good about it. And now it’s either thumbs up or thumbs down, and as soon as you do that to almost anything it’s never going to work.
Michael has been a target, because when he was young and brash, he cut a particular kind of figure that didn’t rub the critics the right way, and they’re holding him to things he said when he was 20 years old or 25 years old. You know, he’s matured, he’s a different guy and they seem to look at him as though he’s the same guy they reviewed 20, 25 years ago when “Bad Boys” came out.
They make it personal. That’s the part I don’t understand. He’s clearly working hard, he’s clearly doing whatever he thinks is right. Okay, you don’t like it, why are you making it personal?
MTV: You say they’re wrongly measuring “Transformers” against a Scorsese film, or something that isn’t necessarily applicable. If that’s not right, what would you want to see the “Transformers” series compared to?
Bonaventura: I want to see it compared to movies like “Jaws,” and the original “Star Wars,” movies that transported the audience into a difference experience where you were wowed, you were swept up by the story and by the spectacle. Or any [James] Cameron movie, you know, I’m a huge fan of Jim Cameron and you go back and look at those movies and they stand up as really massively entertaining.
Look I’ve made all different kinds of movies, I look at each movie in a different way, I don’t understand why they don’t.
MTV: For “Transformers,” then, you’d like critics to focus more on the entertainment factor, rather than other aspects?
Bonaventura: One interesting thing that I’ve never seen a critics talk about, or anybody really, is the fact that every Michael Bay movie is very funny. It’s different cast, it’s different writers, so somebody is funny in the equation.
It’s him! Like, nobody gives him credit for how funny his movies are, they’re funny. There’s laugh-out-loud moments so why aren’t people giving him credit for that?
I had an experience this Christmas, it was very interesting, I was on an island off the coast of Malaysia, and somehow they found out I was the producer of “Transformers.” The gardener came up to me, beside himself, “Transformers” meant the world to him.
In very broken English, he told me how [when] the last movie [came out], he couldn’t talk his wife into going, so he took his kids. And he couldn’t talk his wife into going again, so he took his best friend, then he couldn’t talk his kids or his wife into going, so he went alone. He said he ended up seeing it four or five times.
Now you know, it’s taking him out of his world for two or three hours of pure entertainment and joy. He was clearly obsessed with the experience. That’s what this kind of movie is designed to do, is transport you to a different place.
MTV: You also mentioned critic’s screenings being a problem, but they’re just part of the way movies are rolled out now. If you think that’s something that’s not working, you’ve been in every aspect of the business, and in fact, are in a very viable position to change things. How would you want to change the system?
Bonaventura: I think there’s two things. One, and I’ve tried to do this when I was an Executive at Warner Brothers all the way through, is whenever people see movies . . . When you watch a movie alone it’s not as good an experience. No matter what kind of movie it is. “Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” it’s better with other people you feel the emotion in the room.
The thing I would try and get everyone to do is get everyone to agree to go see the movie with an audience; and I know studios would encourage it. Usually, it’s a scheduling issue that gets in the way of that, but part of the experience is actually seeing what makes cinema different than going to watch it on your television in your house with a couple of people. It is a collective experience no matter what.
There are certain movies, partly you identify the experience from what the audience was going through. I know at the end of “Schindler’s List,” everyone in the audience I was with was crying. That’s as impactful as the movie is, in a way. Or at a great comedy you know, the fact that there’s this sort of laughter builds on itself. I think cheering builds on itself.
So a movie like “Age of Extinction,” in a NY premiere, which was our first time seeing it with a full American audience… To hear them react with cheers in certain places where we never had the opportunity to hear that makes the movie experience more fun—not just for the filmmakers, but for the audience.
I really don’t think it’s that complex at the end of the day.
I do also think it would be great to have some kind of symposium where we got some filmmakers and some critics together to all talk about what it is that we can do as filmmakers to be part of a collaboration that makes it feel less antagonistic, because it feels kind of personal these days.
MTV: Let’s talk about some specific criticisms of “Age Of Extinction” in particular. The movie runs two hours and 45 minutes. That par for the course for the series, but certainly it’s significantly longer than other blockbusters these days, let alone a regular movie going experience.
Bonaventura: I think from Michael, down to every one of us, we’d all love it to be shorter, but the story drove it longer. The spectacle drove it longer. I mean “Avatar” was three hours, wasn’t it? Sometimes the story just makes it long, and it’s not like we didn’t all struggle to make it shorter frankly.
Michael did and everyone did, but you cut certain things out and you go, well, the father/daughter relationship got hurt by cutting that scene, or what a spectacular action sequence, are we really not going to show that? So I think all of us are sympathetic to any one of says his movie’s too long. It’s the length of the story and sometimes that’s just what happens.
MTV: There’s also a lengthy scene where you have a joke about Romeo and Juliet laws in Texas, and multiple reviews brought up concerns about that, particularly the content of that scene. In a movie that is based on a toy line, you’re going to get kids coming in, families coming in, was there any discussion about that scene in particular maybe crossing the line?
Bonaventura: Our world has gotten so over concerned about things, that’s my reaction to that. I find that scene funny and I don’t think there’s anything in it that’s so ribald or strange that anybody should have concern.
Look I respect people’s rights to feel that way, but I don’t know, I think it’s a funny scene and it’s intentionally funny. And it’s a real thing at the same time, which is probably what makes it funny you know? It probably makes people feel uncomfortable because it’s something that happens in the real world and we’re just giving it a moment.
I don’t know, I think people take things too seriously. The whole scene [shows] how people look at our world and have a lot of respect. Come on you guys have a little sense of humor.
MTV: “Age of Extinction” screenwriter Ehren Kruger did an interview where he said, “when you’re talking about aliens, robotic machines which disguise themselves as vehicles and animals, you start to make your peace that logical sense doesn’t have to be the be all, end all.” Can you clarify that statement at all?
Bonaventura: What’s interesting, if you look at most of the franchise, most of the big franchises inherently, there is an extraordinary idea at the center of them that strains the edges of our experience. “Harry Potter” is a wizard, and in the train station there’s a place to go into a different train, do you know what I mean? There’s a galactic battle with a guy with a mask who talks funny.
You could look at any of these things and say, well come on. I don’t want to pick on the critics, but they don’t put on the hat of disbelief, they put on the hat of fantasy. And these are fantasies. We are talking about, I think was Ehren was saying, is we’re talking about talking robots coming from outer space. Right? Is it possible? Sure. Is it something that I’ve ever seen in my life? No.
So you’re already dealing in a subject manner that is outside our norm. So that’s what he’s trying to say, it’s not something that’s not supposed to make sense, he’s saying you’re dealing with things.
I mean, Yoda. I love Yoda, [but] should you really make sense of that? Some guy living in a swamp who talks like a Kung Fu master? So I think when you look at these movies, again, it’s the extraordinary, it’s the outside the norm is what makes them special.
MTV: One last thing I saw pop up a lot in reviews, you guys hung a lot of the ad campaigns on the Dinobots, but they come in only briefly, very close to the end of the movie.
Bonaventura: Well what’s interesting about the Dinobots is that we’ve been trying to put them in the first three movies and we could never find a good reason to do it, honestly. The fans were very vocal about wanting it, and we wanted to please the fans, but we also didn’t want to just throw them in because we could, because people would love that we put them in. We put it in for a good creative reason.
The next movie is going to give us an opportunity to set up the characters to do something bigger with them. You know, we haven’t decided anything about the next movie yet, but my instinct says they were so well received.
Frankly, while the hardcore fan base always wanted it, we were also asking ourselves the question, how are the less hardcore fans going to respond to, suddenly there’s dinosaurs running around, you know? So that’s was something on the conceptual level we had to take the leap that yeah, more than the fan voice are going to dig this idea. I think we would’ve loved them to come in earlier we couldn’t figure it out.
MTV: Before I let you go, I know you said you have no idea what’s going on with the sequel, but do you know when you’ll make a decision as to whether you’re going forward with “Transformers 5?”
Bonaventura: Look, I think it’s fair to say given the success we’re going to make a “Transformers 5.” The question will be whether Michael wants to do it or not. You know, he’s done four of them. He was debating whether to do this one or not. I think he enjoyed the experience a lot, and I think the audience’s reaction has encouraged him to take on the next one. So that’s our first decision is to see if he wants to do it.
There’s a couple of really cool directions that are pointed at in this movie that we never really thought through, but where they could go are kind of interesting. Where are these people that sent this guys down to chase around Transformers/Autobots? Who are they? What are they like? Dinobots, as you mentioned, we’ve only touched on. There’s a lot of things we could do with that.
I think Mark’s character, we’ve just touched on the beginning of that. He’s always wanted to be an inventor extraordinaire, and now certainly it’s conceivable, he could be that. Now none of those are things we all said we should do, but when you see the movie there’s certain things that you see the audience get passionate about, you get passionate about yourself.
And there’s a lot of ideas that along the way have [that] never fit into certain movies, so each time there’s been a certain process where I’ll say, let’s presume Michael does it, then ideas begin flying around. They begin to take shape.
This movie did a great job of opening a lot of doors that could give you a lot of interesting stuff. And which doors we walk through that’s what will be decided over the next six months, eight months.
MTV: What about a connected universe of movies, that seems to be kind of the big thing now with Marvel, and the “Star Wars” movies coming? Is that something you could ever see for the “Transformers” franchise?
Bonaventura: The characters are loved enough to make a possibility. For myself, I’d like to keep it as a whole for as long as we can. Just my personal preference. Would a Bubblebee movie be fun? Sure. Would an Optimus movie be fun? Sure. Would a movie on Cybertron, just all Transformers be fun? I’m sure.
But I kind of feel like it has a way, I know from a box office stand point, this is not true what I’m about to say, but it makes the bigger thing seem more diminutive to me. Just my opinion.
“Transformers: Age Of Extinction” is in movie theaters worldwide now.