'Transformers 4' Reality Show Begins Casting Chinese Actors

Florida State University
Paramount Pictures

FSU's College of Motion Picture Arts in Tallahassee is huge news in Hollywood, thanks to its collaboration with VFX titan Digital Domain (Transformers), which gives students actual experience making blockbusters at its West Palm Beach facility. VFX professionals are screaming about the competition from unpaid -- in fact, tuition-paying -- young rivals, but in a down job market, this may be just the ticket for hungry talent trying to break in. FSU students have won as many Student Academy Awards as AFI's have: eight.

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Paramount hopes for a lucrative in-country release with 80,000 citizens expected to try for four speaking roles opposite Mark Wahlberg in the 2014 film.

A version of this story first appeared in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Paramount’s novel experiment in using a Chinese reality show to help cast Transformers 4 is getting a welcome reception.

Between 50,000 and 80,000 Chinese citizens are expected to enter the competition to win four speaking roles opposite Mark Wahlberg in the summer 2014 film, which will be partially shot in China.

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The online competition kicked off in China last week.

Veteran Hollywood producer Sid Ganis is chairman of Jiaflix Enterprises, a Chinese-American joint venture created last year to stream international movies in China, which has entered into a “cooperation agreement” on Transformers 4 with the Chinese along with Paramount Pictures and the China Movie Channel to select filming sites within China, to do theatrical promotion, and possibly for post-production activities. This is the first time the government owned  China Movie Channel (aka CTV-6) is working with a western company in production of a major movie.

Ganis compares the reality show contest to American Idol. “It’s the first time it’s been done this way in China,” he says. “It’s kind of a western way to do it.”

Ganis will be one of six judges in the Transformers 4 Chinese Actor’s Talent Search. They will make the final selection of two men and two women, with input from director Michael Bay. One of the men and one of the women will be professional actors and the other two will not have professional experience.

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The other judges will be one of the producers of Transformers 4 Lorenzo DiBonaventura, casting director Denise Chamian; Paramount’s president of marketing and distribution Megan Colligan; CTV-6 deputy director Jia Qi (who picks the Western movies which play on Chinese TV); and Liang Longfel, vp of M1905, a web site owned by CTV-6 that attracts about 4 million visitors a day. (1905 refers to the first year a movie was made in China.)

Longfel is also a partner in Jiaflix with Ganis, Kenneth Huang and Sid Ganis’ cousin Marc Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago sports business advisory with close ties to China.

Here is how the contest is expected to work: The online applications from those who want the roles (who must  speak some English) will be screened by the Chinese. Those who qualify will be assigned a Chinese language web page  which will feature their photo, bio and a brief audition.

Voting will be online. The first round will pare the number of contestants down to 400. In the second round, semi-finalists will face additional auditions and testing. There will then be another round of online voting through Chinese social networks to get down to a small but as yet undetermined number of finalists who will face the judges.

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The finals play out in June over five weeks on an hour-long reality show which will air in primetime on consecutive Sunday nights on The Movie Channel.

It is unclear if the American judges will actually all go to China to take part. They may just be seen through a satellite hook-up, although that is still undecided a little more than a month before the show launches.  

Ganis said it is also undecided how significant the roles will be in Transformers 4 but he indicated the winners will have speaking parts that will be somewhat prominent. There are other professional Chinese actors involved in the production as well as American actors including Stanley Tucci, Nicola Peltz and Jack Reynor.

Why the big push into China? The last Transformers movie, Dark of the Moon, grossed $165 million in China in 2011 (out of $1.1 billion worldwide) – making China the second biggest market for the movie after the U.S. That represented 20 percent of the film’s international gross, compared to 9 percent for a typical Paramount release in China.

The stunt is expected to raise Transformers 4’s profile which should help it secure a lucrative China release (the film is not an official China co-production and thus isn’t guaranteed access).

Says Colligan: “It’s a unique opportunity to be talking about the movie in a way that is meaningful to Chinese audience members.”

All applicants' email addresses are being entered into a database to be used next spring by Paramount to promote the Chinese engagement, which is expected to be close to the U.S. date of June 27, 2014.

“It’s a good way to promote the movie,” says Ganis. “It’s a good way for the government to know the American film company is eager to participate with the Chinese in the making of the movie.”