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June 20, 2017

Can the newest 'Transformers' jump-start a fading franchise?

Maybe cinematic history will be yet made with this iteration

“Transformers: The Last Knight”

You probably haven’t heard much about it, but cinematic history is being made this week by Michael Bay and "Transformers."

This is Bay’s fifth time in the director’s chair and no filmmaker has ever helmed so many installments of a franchise before (George Lucas was heavily involved in the first six "Star Wars" films but did not direct “The Empire Strikes Back” or “Return of the Jedi.”)

In a bit of a twist, Bay actually began his career as an intern for Lucas, helping to sketch out storyboards for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” as a teenager.

Perhaps in tribute to Star Wars, Bay’s "Transformers" pictures typically debut on a Wednesday. This makes predictions a bit more difficult since it creates two figures. The opening weekend gross (Fri-Sun) and the opening week total (Wed-Sun). The opening totals for the first four movies are presented below:

Transformers” – $70.5M Opening Weekend/$155.4M Opening Week

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” – $108.9M Opening Weekend/$200M Opening Week

Transformers: Dark of the Moon” – $97.8M Opening Weekend/$162.6M Opening Week

Transformers: Age of Extinction”* – $100M Opening Weekend/*Opened on a Friday

This record of box-office success is quite impressive when you realize that Michael Bay is one of the most critically reviled directors on the planet.

Film critics already had a distaste for Bay, but this franchise, which features giant robots, explosions and less-than-flattering portrayals of women, ratcheted that disgust to another level.

The first installment scored a 57% Rotten Tomatoes rating, just shy of the 60% fresh threshold, and 10 years later, remains the runaway leader.

2009’s “Revenge of the Fallen” is considered infamous terrible and earned a paltry 19% score. In 2011, “Dark of the Moon” saw a slight rebound to 35%, only for 2014’s “Age of Extinction” to set a new low at 18%.

So why do these movies still do well? Although Bay does have a hardcore group of fans, what draws many to the theaters are the Transformers themselves.

In the 1980’s, toy makers had the brilliant idea to launch cartoon TV shows to promote their new toy lines. Transformers was arguably the most popular of these and produced a generation of (mostly male) fans who look back on those characters with nostalgia.

Bay’s films, however, are divisive among this community with many feeling too much enough is spent on annoying actors (i.e. Shia Labeouf) and less on the actual Transformers.

This phenomenon is perfectly captured by Rotten Tomatoes’ audience scores. For instance, the 2007 original was embraced by 85% of users. The sequels saw a steady erosion, though, earning ratings of 57%, 55% and 51%, respectively.

The box office totals also suggest a growing malaise. Domestically, “Revenge of the Fallen” remains the series’ high point, while the franchise relies more and more on foreign grosses:

Transformers ” – $319M Domestic, $390M Foreign, $709M Worldwide

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen ” – $402M Domestic, $434M Foreign, $836M Worldwide

Transformers: Dark of the Moon ” – $352M Domestic, $771M Foreign, $1.12B Worldwide

Transformers: Age of Extinction ” – $245M Domestic, $856M Foreign, $1.10B Worldwide

The problem with this is that studios take less of a percentage of a film’s foreign gross (China, in particular,  only returns about 25% of total receipts). Additionally, it appears to be a symptom of the dreaded franchise fatigue.

Meanwhile, star Mark Wahlberg, who took over for Labeouf in “Age of Extinction,” recently revealed that he won't return to the series after this one. Bay also contends that he’s retiring from the franchise, although this isn’t the first time he’s made that claim.

Despite all this, Paramount has no intention of retiring the property. A writer’s room is hard at work on future pictures and Hailee Steinfeld is already signed up for one of them.

As for “The Last Knight,” reviews are embargoed until it hits cinema screens, never a positive sign. Tracking is forecasting $70-$75 million from Wednesday to Sunday. Given the headwinds, I’m going to say it ends up coming short of that benchmark.

Prediction: $66 million Wed-Sun, $30 Fri-Sun

Nick Field is the former Managing Editor of PoliticsPA and is a regular PennLive Opinion contributor. A Bucks County native, he graduated from American University in Washington, D.C.