How do big-budget films look from an amateur photographer’s lens? How do unsponsored behind-the-scenes shots affect a film’s promotion? What relationship should film studios have with the fans who shoot unlicensed footage? These questions are at the center of Transformers: The Premake, a fascinating documentary available in its entirety on YouTube.
Transformers: The Premake runs for 25 minutes and features a unique narrative style. Much of the film is composed of YouTube clips related to the filming of Transformers: Age of Extinction, the fourth installment in Michael Bay’s explosive film franchise. There is no over-arching voiceover, as creator Kevin B. Lee instead chooses to highlight the raw nature of user-generated video.
With his film, Lee hopes to discuss the relationship between big-budget film productions and the industrious fans who capture relevant snippets within their hometowns (Much of Age of Extinction was shot in Chicago.) As he explains in an editorial he wrote for Slate, these amateur videographers are both cost-effective marketing assets and legitimate threats to a well-oiled promotional machine:
“What did it mean to be able to see so much behind the scenes material before the movie is even released? Would [Transformers distributor] Paramount take the videos down? In some instances they did, and I found a handful of dead links, leaving me to wonder what might be unacceptable in those clips. The fact that they had been taken down indicated that Paramount was, to some extent, at least, paying attention, and that the other videos served a benign purpose as far as the company was concerned, by spreading awareness of the film. That this sort of promotional activity was being done voluntarily by the YouTubers suggested a free labor system that’s become all too endemic to the social media economy: We all post our own thoughts and creations to Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and so on, creating content that fuels companies valued in the billions. Even when we are playing with our phones and our movies, we are, in some sense, working for someone else.”
This is a particularly relevant issue on YouTube, where fans are constantly butting heads with large media companies that aren’t sure how to best handle their admirers. For instance, video game distributors are in a tug-of-war with gamers who blatantly use game footage without license. Should these gamers (and the free marketing they provide) be allowed to continue, or should rights holders make like Nintendo and carefully police YouTube videos related to their intellectual property?
Lee’s film also brings up an even more interesting notion: The idea that “guerrilla”-style video is changing the way people consume film. “This project helped me to realize to what extent our experiences are ‘pre-made’ by the industrial and geopolitical interests that go into the making of a film, or any cultural product,” wrote Lee, “and to what extent our own creative energies are co-opted in those efforts.”
Several films have played into this hunger for raw footage. In particular, two viral videos from 2013 also served as sneaky marketing for big budget films. When Channing Tatum did a split to make fun of Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Volvo ad, he also created brand awareness for 22 Jump Street. James Franco and Seth Rogen did the same for The Interview when they created a parody of Kanye West’s “Bound 2” music video. Both of those videos seem like nothing more than comedy actors fooling around on set, and their perceived rawness makes them feel authentic, even if they are shilling for Hollywood motion pictures.
In short, those two films understand the same thing Lee does, that viral clips can be a film’s best weapon if used properly. It’s a topic that won’t go away anytime soon, and Transformers: The Premake provides a compelling case study.