What the 'Transformers' writers room means about the new shape of Hollywood
While I don't tally the worth of a writer based on how many news stories they break, I will admit that I was deeply irritated when the story was first written about the notion of Akiva Goldsman spearheading a team of writers to develop "Transformers" sequels. I'd been tipped about it a few weeks earlier, and I was trying to get a second source I trusted, either at the studio or on the agency side of things. I pushed, and while I was sure the story was right, I couldn't run it. Excruciating. Part of my hesitance was that I didn't want to be wrong on a story like that because it's a threat more than anything. Goldsman and Bay breaking story together? Holy cow.
Now Deadline's got a list of names they say are the final hires, and it certainly sounds like they put an interesting group together. One thing that's important to remember is that whoever works on these movies is going to be keeping a pretty dense group of people happy above them. Michael Bay, Steven Spielberg, and Lorenzo di Bonaventura remain attached to the property, and Marc Evans, who recently took over as Motion Picture Group President for the studio, is looking to prove that he can not only manage but generate reliable hits. Paramount makes fewer big movies than any other studio, and it sounds like they're hoping to change that.
What we're witnessing right now is studio franchise filmmaking surrendering to a creative business model that is basically the opposite of how films used to work. Many of the things we love in pop culture started with one person sitting in a room in front of a blank piece of paper dreaming as hard as they possibly could. More and more, franchise films are turning to this idea of the creative committee. While I think the rise of great television storytelling has been part of the reason for this model taking hold, I honestly feel like Pixar is another reason people are turning to this idea. Their story process, starting with "Toy Story," was an impressive example of what happens when you put a lot of smart people on the same thing, pushing them to add value to each other's work with no sense of ego. James Cameron is reportedly very happy with the way things went on the "Avatar" sequels, and while Marvel certainly has different writers working on their individual movies, there is a creative group that everyone answers to and deals with on each of the films.
I am fascinated by the "Transformers" films because they represent a transition into this weird sort of uber-cinema, where it literally doesn't matter what happens in the movies as long as there's a lot of it. I've taken some heat for the grades I've given the different films, but I think getting upset about their terrible screenplays is missing the point entirely. They're not movies in any traditional sense. They are sensory assaults, these massive insane attacks of nonsensical character tics and special effects on a scale this is beyond absurd. The idea of trying to untangle the "continuity" of the films is laughable, and the end of the last film suggested a huge radical left turn for the series that I knew they'd never actually follow. It would involve leaving Earth and creating a series focused on nothing but giant robots and alien creatures.
Instead, it looks like Paramount will depend on Robert Kirkman, Art Marcum & Matt Holloway, Jeff Pinkner, and Zak Penn. Penn's working on "Pacific Rim 2" and the Steven Spielberg-directed "Ready Player One," and he's a workhorse when it comes to these types of films. Marcum & Holloway are going to get a big boost here. They're hard-working writers, and while they were credited on both "Iron Man" and last year's "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles," they've also worked on a number of things still working their way through development, like "Highlander" and the "Alien Nation" remake. Jeff Pinkner is one of the "Lost" graduates, a co-writer on "The Amazing Spider-Man 2."
And then there's Robert Kirkman. He's the real odd man out in this scenario, and I'm curious to find out if he was a big Transformers fan as a kid. If so, I can see why he would want this job, but short of that, I don't get it. He's in charge of his own empire via "The Walking Dead" these days, and any time you step in to work with someone else's intellectual property (especially when it's something that can generate $1 billion per film worldwide), you're basically tap-dancing with a ball and chain on each ankle. You're working under so much supervision and so many restrictions and you're having to satisfy the marketing department, the toy manufacturers, and the fast-food partners in addition to the already-difficult task of crafting interesting stories about giant robots that turn into cars. I can see why someone like Dennis Lehane would work on "Travis McGee," because it would be a way of paying tribute to John D. MacDonald. In Kirkman's case, I really want to hear what it was that made him even get involved in this in the first place.
I don't envy any of them the task, but I'm certainly curious to see what a group like this comes up with. There's no date right now, but I'm sure Paramount is eager to get one up and running as quickly as they can. In the meantime, Michael Bay is set to make "13 Hours," the Benghazi film, and I'm looking forward to seeing a 55-minute set piece involving a recreation of the attack of the CIA station using CGI and slow-motion explosions.
In the meantime, let's see what this group comes up with.