With Iron Man 3 setting opening-day records in China, it’s become imperative for every Hollywood tentpole to pay homage to the world’s second-biggest movie market. At last month’s Beijing Film Festival, Paramount and Transformers 4 went decidedly all-in with their own China strategy. Not only will Michael Bay shoot scenes in China for the next installment in his robot franchise, now starring Mark Wahlberg, but the sure-blockbuster announced that it will also include speaking roles for the four Chinese actors who survive a new TV reality show.
The competition has already begun online and organizers expect approximately 80,000 contestants will enter for the chance to play a Kung Fu fighter, sexy lady, computer geek, or precocious Lolita-type. Correctly titled the Transformers 4 Chinese Actors Talent Search Reality Show and scheduled to air on Chinese television in June, the show will feature a panel of six judges led by former AMPAS president Sid Ganis and Transformers producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura.
But what exactly is the panel going to be judging? A story in the Hollywood Reporter hinted that the enormous field of candidates would be winnowed down by online voting after “auditions and testing.” What will the criteria be? And how will the judges articulate what they want and don’t want to see from the finalists? This isn’t exactly American Idol, where the voting might be overly superficial and sentimental, but at least you know what you’re supposed to be grading. (Pssst… it’s their singing.) Should we get ready for repeated “Just okay for me”s and “I was waiting for a moment”s from the judges as wannabe actors try to make talking to their inanimate Cameros seem convincing? I suppose the Kung Fu fighter candidates will be simple enough to compare and select, but how do you separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to finding the perfect “computer geek”? (I don’t even want to contemplate what the auditions for the “Lolita” role might look like…)
There’s no denying that this TV stunt is pure genius, even if it only gives more ammunition to the critics who think that Transformers and Michael Bay represent all that is wrong with Hollywood filmmaking. Transformers 4 receives invaluable promotion that reportedly will culminate with five weeks of precious Chinese primetime television this summer. If the show helps in any way to secure a wider and more favorable release in China — where Dark of the Moon grossed $145.5 million in 2011 — the gains will far outweigh the pains of gifting four no-names some screen time. Think of it as the 21st-century version of casting the producer’s niece, a tradition as old as Hollywood itself.
Steven Soderbergh might already be working on his next Hollywood rant about this latest development, and the cineaste in you might feel the same way. But I know some people who would sign up for a similar TV show in an instant… especially if it were for a speaking role in the next Star Wars movie. Actually, that’s a reality competition I’d watch.