How Michael Bay Has Survived and Thrived in Modern Hollywood

Source: Paramount

Michael Bay’s rise to Hollywood infamy is pretty much the definition of meteoric. He started small, filing storyboards for Raiders of the Lost Ark as a 15-year-old intern at Lucasfilm. The eventual release of the film inspired him to be a director, and so began the controversial career of one of the industry’s most successful and reviled directors. His filmography started out with Bad Boys and The Rock, two movies that most regard as at least entertaining if nothing else. But as the money started rolling in, the quality continued to plummet in a downward spiral.

But, of course, why would Bay try to make Citizen Kane when his tried-and-true formula continues to make him unbelievably wealthy? According to Box Office Mojo, just one of the 11 movies he’s directed has made less than $100 million worldwide. But the cash flow only gets crazier from there. His highest grossing effort? Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, at an absolutely insane $1.1 billion. That particular Transformers sequel in fact made a majority of its money overseas (specifically in China), hauling in just 31% of its money from domestic box office sales.

Simply put, Bay has made himself a very rich man while expending very little creative effort. Despite vitriol from critics and a vocal swathe of the Internet, people keep on seeing his movies. Lately, though, he’s had to depend less on the kindness of American audiences, with the largest market for his Transformers saga now existing primarily in China.

While interest stateside for Bay has waned (each Transformers sequel has made less than the previous one since Dark of the Moon), he’s never been more loved overseas, something he’s leaned on heavily for each subsequent movie. Why worry about the complaints of American audiences when they’re consistently accounting for less than 35% of his box office haul?

This all came to a head with Tranformers: Age of Extinction. As the domestic box office for each movie in the series has gone down, the overseas money hauled in has gone up significantly. Age of Extinction even went out of its way to account for this, setting a large portion of the film in China, tossing in product placement for exclusively Chinese wares, and depicting the Chinese military and government as central heroes to the story.

It may have seemed baffling and out of place to American audiences, but it was a hit just about everywhere else, with a staggering 78% of the film’s money coming from outside our borders. The real truth of the matter is that Bay has turned himself into a full-fledged international celebrity who no longer relies on the whims of his native audience.

But his survival in Hollywood predating Transformers was more than simply his overseas appeal. His bombastic approach to filmmaking makes him money wherever he goes, whether it’s China or right here in the United States. The world is a complicated, sometimes stressful, place. Being able to turn all of that off for even just two hours is a welcomed relief for many, and Bay affords that mindless escape. Of course, the recent downtick in American audiences does tell us Bay’s explosion-centric strategy may have reached terminal velocity. Fortunately for him, the rest of the world has never wanted it more.

It’s always odd seeing such a polarizing figure succeed the way Bay has. But with his appeal quickly diminishing at home while it increases abroad, the next stage of his career may very well have him become irrelevant in the very country he’s from. Some could even argue that he’s overstayed his welcome already, given the widespread criticism from all corners of the Internet that he experiences on a regular basis. To us, he’s become something of a directorial punchline. To the rest of the world, though, he couldn’t be more of a star.

All box office numbers are courtesy of Box Office Mojo

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