Transformers: The Premake takes an amusing look at “crowdsourced movie promotion”

A number of years ago, I found myself witness to a rather eye-opening situation. By circumstance, I happened to be present while a team of at least two dozen people scrambled urgently to locate a post production leak. It’s probably best if I don’t mention the film or the filmmaker in question, but the panic kicked off when a random Twitter user sent a public message to a well-known director, saying that they had seen a trailer for their upcoming, highly anticipated film and that they had really enjoyed it.

This was the cue for the leakhunter team to spend their day trying to figure out how the trailer had escaped, and to fire off a number of very heated phone calls and irate emails. It even transpired that there was another crew of people working permanently for the studio financing and distributing this film and tasked only with locating leaks, scouring the internet for content that might possibly reveal something unsanctioned, and then trying to get it taken down.

It might seem unsurprising now, but five years ago these crack teams were shocking to me. Why did it matter this much?

Ultimately, it turned out the guy who sent the Tweet had just made it up, only looking to be part of ‘something’. And of course, in a way, he was.

Such fans are now very much part of modern movie marketing. Their discussions on social media are frequently leveraged by studios and PR companies in furthering the spread of conversation, and therefore promotion. There’s an intriguing symbiosis going on, but it does seem dependent on the studios being in control.

It’s not surprising a studio will want to edit the message being sent about their film, but any threat to their control, maybe even when the repercussions could only be positive, is treated as cause for concern.

When you add the studios’ desire to shoot their films in public spaces to the ubiquity of video-recording smartphones you have a situation in which the control of conversation would appear to be in the hands of the public and fans. But the studios are being very serious about controlling this flow of unauthorised Instagram, YouTube and other new media content and using every trick they can to adjust the conversation to suit their ends.

Into this complex and rather fascinating scenario steps Kevin B. Lee, with his twenty-five minute “desktop documentary,” Transformers: The Premake. What begins as a fun compendium of Transformers: Age of Extinction behind-the-scenes footage shot by people on the street, ultimately becomes something altogether more interesting. Lee begins to investigate how the studio may be controlling the message, utilising this “crowdsourced movie promotion” while having videos and images deleted when they don’t feel they’re ‘on message.’

At one point in the film, Lee even questions a YouTube uploader as to whether or not he works for Paramount. Although the question is left hanging without a response, the answer isn’t necessarily relevant. Whether consciously or not, the uploader is working in the interests of Paramount and promoting their film.

Transformers: Age of Extinction is a particularly interesting case study because the film was shot partly in China and with a definite eye to the Chinese market. It’s interesting to note, and Lee does, that there was zero footage leaking out of the ‘People’s Republic of China’. The Chinese government appears to have absolute control in this regard.

But there was televised Chinese news and Lee cuts this in to introduce Michael Bay‘s use of Chongqing’s Wulong Karst National Geology Park as a location for filming, and to show us a little of how the production interfered with local businesses in that area. The news footage does suggest, it’s worth noting, that the local business owners are hoping to benefit from the interference in the long run, after the film has highlighted the park and boosted tourism. It’s another symbiotic relationship that seems to be built on rather shaky foundations, and I feel it raises as many questions about exploitation as it does about mutual benefits.

Lee’s most pointed juxtaposition comes in a darkly comic moment where he cuts from a suspended YouTube account to footage of the Chinese flag surrounded by the legend ‘Transformers Are Dangerous.’ It’s not exactly subtle but Lee is making a funny, valuable point about censorship. I think the point is particularly worth taking seriously as the efforts to censor being expended here are all over nothing more consequential than a summer blockbuster movie.

“First they came for our footage of cars that turned into robots, and I did not speak out…”

You can watch the documentary in full through the YouTube embed below, unless Paramount have somehow managed to get it taken down by the time you’re reading this.

Video via Kevin B. Lee’s website, Alsolikelife