If you follow movies at all or are even mildly aware of what’s being released at the summer box office this year (July 2014 as of this writing), you probably noticed that Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction came out a couple weeks ago and is making a ton of money. Sure, its domestic take in its second and third weeks fell sharply from its opening weekend, but it still managed the year’s only $100 million domestic opening, it stayed on top of the box office for two straight weeks in the United States; most importantly, the film is absolutely dominating overseas markets, particularly in China where it’s grossing substantially more money than in North America, in part due to some market-savvy Chinese nationalist pandering that’s becoming all the rage now. The film is currently set to break $1 billion at the box office and become the highest grossing movie of 2014.
Michael Bay is the quintessential big, dumb, American action-blockbuster director. His movies, by and large, are based on extremely loud and incoherent action, are excruciatingly long and drawn out, and typically feature a plethora of annoying Michael Bay-esque cinematographic features (spinning cameras, overuse of slow-motion, nonstop explosions, etc.) in addition to lowbrow racist or sexist humor, and last but not least, bland, stupid, forgettable characters that are of no consequence to the movie’s nonsensical plot or financial success. The Transformers series is, for all intents and purposes, Bay’s career flagship franchise based on its overwhelming and consistent box office dominance year in and year out. The franchise has become target practice for movie nerds and those of us overwhelmed by Bay’s excessive, special effects-driven action, with people often referencing the many disparaging and unbecoming filmic traits I just listed, using the series as the definitive benchmark for “big, dumb, bad” action movies.
I’ll admit I managed to have some fun watching the first Transformers (2007) film. I was a young teenager then, still in high school, and was gullible and naive enough to give Bay’s movies the benefit of the doubt from time to time. I still hadn’t discovered the ugly fallacy that exists and has existed beneath the global movie business for some time — that most mainstream titles are little more than product-placement scams built to appeal to the lowest common denominator and thus the widest audience possible. While I still felt somewhat uncomfortable with the blatant dumbness of even the first film back then (still far and away the best and least offensive film in the entire series), I was able to, as the saying goes, “turn off my brain” for a couple hours and absorb the spectacle of interchangeable robots smacking each other while Bay’s latest “protégé,” Megan Fox, sauntered around a clueless, stuttering Shia LeBeouf.
And then the sequel released two years later.
I wouldn’t be comfortable with the Transformers series’ massive financial success even if it never got worse than the first one, but I would still be able to stomach it to a large extent. It wouldn’t anger me or elicit strong cynical urges within my psyche. With my viewing of the second film in the franchise, Revenge of the Fallen (2009, henceforth RotF), however, I realized just how limitless Bay’s and movie studios’ ability to appeal to the lowest common denominator was. That period of realization during and after I watched RotF was a crucial moment in my development as a film lover. I grew up a little. I’m strangely glad that I saw it but sad that I paid for it. I realized the movie-going world, much like the rest of life, is a complicated, often corrupt, and extremely imperfect sphere of influence that bowed to the almighty dollar and box office success as much as it was ever governed by artistic merit and honest intellectual collaboration. I began to look at other blockbusters from then on with my older, more experienced, mature mind, with this awareness that most of us moviegoers are little more than hive-mind-controlled consumers sitting passively in darkened theatres, mindlessly shoveling popcorn into our mouths as we let the reptilian, pre-programmed instincts of our brain take over. We watch various colorful images move back and forth across a screen like cats hypnotized by movements on a television set.
After wasting my money with RotF, I made a commitment to not support movies I didn’t feel worth supporting with my ticket purchases. If a film I to which I was ambivalent received good word-of-mouth or surprising reviews, I often reconsidered and took my chances at the theatre. Otherwise , I stayed far away from financially encouraging crappy theatrical releases of all tastes, save for the occasional surprise disappointment or yearning please-come-see-this-(dumb)-movie-with-me plea from friends. Aside from the occasional bad marketing campaign, in general, if you’re an intelligent movie-fan, you can discern a movie’s quality and strength of writing from the trailer, critical reviews, and confirmations by artistically minded peers, or some combination thereof. In general, my film instincts are very, very good, and that’s because I look at movies not just as entertainment (like most of the public does), and certainly not as a product by default, but as an art form. I’ve also watched countless different films from different backgrounds and different types of artists, I’ve studied them in great detail, I watch them actively instead of passively, and appreciate them with the benefit of perspective. The average moviegoer does not do any of these things.
The healthy but hopelessly outnumbered minority of film-goers that do think similarly as I do, or who appreciate film as art first and entertainment cash-money-product second recognize the absurdly unbalanced reality that exists within movie distribution and appreciation. By and large, the movie business is as much built upon and influenced by money and profits as it is by artistic expression. Everything from hundred million dollar-budgeted Hollywood blockbusters to the smallest international “independent” film production operate by the same restrictions: If a movie is to exist, it must have the financial incentive (i.e. funding) for people to make it, and there must be an audience willing to pay to see it (Rothman 2006). This inevitably creates a balancing act (one that often isn’t so balanced… ) with film production, distribution, and viewing that teeters between art and commerce. Films, even relatively “chump-budget” non-major studio productions, generally require immense amounts of time, effort, and most of all, money, to be made, and they must be marketed to the right audience.
Investing such massive amounts of time, manpower, and resources into making a film requires that a film have a good shot at making its money back, or better yet, turn a profit. This, therefore, leads to filmmaking, at least filmmaking as most of the general public knows it, that’s catered toward the masses and will appeal to the widest audience possible to make as much money as possible. Marketing also becomes a critical factor in film distribution and appreciation. Nowadays, many major studio productions allot nearly half a film’s total budget into marketing and advertising to get the word out about their project, with the most effective marketing schemes almost always coming out on top at the box office. Movie studios spare no expense to saturate television, Internet space, billboards, magazines, and all other kinds of media with as much advertising for their films as they can afford. They do this because a lot of freaking money is at stake.
Needless to say, the movies with the biggest budgets and publicity are typically the most widely viewed and distributed. Films that can (A) appeal to the most moviegoers possible and (B) have the financial and infrastructure means to market and distribute there films to the most locations and highest number of screens are watched by the most people and make the most money, and thus, those two types of economic behaviors are encouraged to repeat themselves. Movies have to (1) pander to the masses and (2) have to sell themselves well, two things that are, by definition, intertwined.
The problem this creates is that most people end up seeing only a fraction of the movies that are made in the world, and in general, much of (most?) of those films they see aren’t of very high quality. When studios view films strictly as means to make money, and when film-goers appreciate films only as packages of entertainment, the focus of the movie business becomes less concerned with artistic merit and more so on cold-hearted capitalism. The end result is that cinemas become saturated with films that are made as efficient, calculated products to be consumed by more or less mindless consumers whose soul wish when watching motion pictures is to turn their brain off and “be entertained.” The focus of the movie industry is not on films that have meaning or symbolism or technical expertise or good writing, or any of that other yucky intellectual stuff — it’s on making money and satisfying lethargic, apathetic escapism. Period.
This brings us back to the original subject at hand, director Michael Bay and his Transformers. The problem with films like Transformers, but especially Transformers, mind you, is that their commercial success and wide viewership comes at the expense of countless other film projects that are either struggling to find an audience or might never even be made. A crucially important fact that most moviegoers, as capitalist consumers, don’t realize is that a movie’s financial success and distribution do not exist in a vacuum. If millions of people see one crappy film, they are less likely to spend additional time and money going to see an additional film that may have more artistic value to it. When wide release films are shown at thousands of theatres in literally every city across the country (if not the world), and the vast majority of the human race pays to see those films and only those films, it comes at a cost to those artistic projects that don’t have the financial means to compete. This is where film snobs like me come in complaining that there’s always dumb, loud, mainstream movies that Jim and Joe Bob like to see playing at every cineplex in the state, but the one quality film we actually wanna see is limited to giant theatres or arthouse showings in major metropolises three hours away. If film distribution were less insanely unfair and based on profits (or if the film-going masses had better or more varied tastes in movies — these things are all connected), the system would be more balanced and you’d see a greater variety of films with different perspectives, goals, and cultural origins.
What a universally-accepted-as-crappy film like Transformers does is swamp the market and monopolize the viewing and consumer habits of millions of moviegoers. This, as I said, comes at a cost of all those films that are not Transformers, those films who don’t choose to appeal to the dimwitted masses, those films that don’t have access to universal distribution and marketing schemes, and most importantly of all, those films that have the naive stupidity to view their audiences as intelligent fans rather than box office dollars to be consumed. Why do so many of us pretentious movie-buffs scoff at the sight of Transformers movies’ billion dollar profits? Because it limits the availability of the movies we like to see and perpetuates the cycle that people are OK with watching lazy, mindless entertainment, and that’s all that’s financially viable.
In a global movie distribution and viewing system, one which is based on limited money, funding, and box office profits, as well as a limited number of screens on which people can watch movies, certain films controlling a monopoly on these assets force out all other projects that don’t have the marketing means to compete or the willingness to sell out. This may not matter as much if you live in a metropolis like New York or Los Angeles (that is, if you care nothing about the artistic awareness level of the general population), but to those of us who don’t have the opportunity to drive three hours to catch a screening of a movie we’ve been dying to see for months because it isn’t playing anywhere near us… that shit matters. Major movie studios play to the poor, shallow, mindless entertainment-obsessed tastes of the masses because they’re greedy and all that matters is corporate profits; subsequently, people’s lack of appreciation for cinema controls what the majority of film is readily available and watched throughout the world. The tastes of other people have enormous impact on how easily your tastes in film are satisfied. What movies other people watch strongly affects what movies you will watch.
In the world of film as we know it, movies that lack the financial muscle of major studio productions or refuse to sacrifice their artistic content in the name of economic viability, face an uphill battle for mass audience visibility. Movie studios’ first goal is to make profits, and most people who pay to see movies simply don’t want to invest the effort into watching a movie for more than just “turn-your-brain-off-and-enjoy” escapism; they don’t want to wander outside their comfort zone, and they most certainly don’t want to be intellectually challenged or stimulated while munching on their popcorn.
I didn’t write this rant to defend critic’s lambasting of Transformers: Age of Extinction, nor did I set out to meticulously list each and every area where Bay’s films fail as both artistic statements or even as rewarding entertainment (that could go on all day). There is such a consensus on the fact that these movies are pure junk that nobody even bothers to disagree on the matter anymore — even die-hard fans of the series who watch every entry on opening night admit they’re dumb as rocks — no, that’s not the issue at stake here. The argument I’m making is that supporting dumb, brain-dead, tedious blockbusters, of which there is no greater jackass example than Bay’s flagship franchise, is irresponsible if you appreciate filmmaking as an art form. Even if you admit what you’re seeing is stupid, something that has no merit beyond mindless “entertainment” (how anyone could find these movies entertaining is beyond me), when you buy that ticket for Age of Extinction, that money you fork over has far more economic and cultural significance than you realize.
One last thing I want to say in regards to the Transformers series and big, dumb blockbusters is this: I understand people want to turn off their brains sometimes and enjoy mindless entertainment. I do. I do the same thing myself every now and then. The problem I have with this behavior is that it seems to consume most every aspect of the majority of the human population’s viewing habits, and this has a negative effect on those of us who don’t want to watch giant robots hit each other all the time. To that end, I think there are perfectly acceptable “dumb” blockbusters that can serve as guilty pleasures while still being intelligently made, and that aren’t offensive to the human intelligence.
See also: Rothman, T. E. (2006). A chairman’s view. In Squire, J. E. (2006). The movie business book. McGraw-Hill Education (UK).