Michael Bay: A New Kind of Director

Rather than contradict Bay’s vision, however, the commercialism only amplifies it. Untold numbers of corporate alliances plus $165 million have bought Hasbro the most Michael Bay of all Michael Bay movies. As shown in a brief ad before Imax screenings of Age of Extinction, Bay prefers to shoot in Imax 3D on top of a Porsche Cayenne. This explains the hundreds of swooping and sweeping shots in the film, a technique that often makes the viewer feel like a helicopter, or one of the surveillance drones added into the film to boost its relevance.

A filmmaker who develops such a symbiotic relationship with Hollywood isn’t an auteur in the traditional definition. Instead, Bay is the blockbuster’s most valuable emcee: an entertainment personality who livens up a familiar formula by performing in direct communication with the audience. He concerns himself not with his place in the cinematic canon, but rather with his two real constituencies: audience and studios.  

From his beginnings as a filmmaker, Bay has hacked the system to give the moviegoers more bang for their buck. That’s quite literal: On the set of his first feature Bad Boys in 1996, Bay asked Paramount for $25,000 to film an ending scene in which Martin Lawrence shoots the villain out of a plane. When Paramount wouldn’t pay for an unnecessary action sequence, Bay wrote the check himself (he would be recompensated when the film crossed the $60 million threshold).

This is a guy whose macho movies reflect the character he presents to the media. Interviews with him often read like his own scripts—clipped, assertive, and strangely idealistic. His public persona, almost as well-known as the films, made this Verizon FiOS commercial a viable bid to the television mass audience:

These days, plenty of other big-name, auteur-ish directors play emcee for franchise properties, though rarely with such indifference to the critics. Bay’s peer in the blockbuster genre, Christopher Nolan, sold Warner Bros. executives on the Batman trilogy by telling them he wanted to embrace the superhero film “as a real film genre.” He later leveraged his brand name to realize his $260 million passion project Inception. Directors J.J. Abrams or Joss Whedon, too, work strategically on tent-pole movies that will pay for smaller highbrow projects with original content. Take Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing, which was funded out of his own, Avengers-stuffed pocket.

The newest members of this directorial club are Chris Miller and Phil Lord, the team behind (and the faces of) of this year’s 22 Jump Street and The Lego Movie. They come from an animation background that might have previously funneled them into independent work. Instead, they now have a reputation for taking bad film ideas and infusing them with off-beat, meta humor. With a tendency to turn interviews into self-aware comedy routines, their off-screen personas have a way of leaping their films: an Annie Hall reference in 22 Jump Streetanti-business messages into The Lego Movie. Where Bay flips off the critics, Miller and Lord deliver a conspiratorial wink. With a nearly $500 million worldwide gross, Lego’s probably not complaining.

Neither should the audience. If the box office continues to orbit around massive narrative universes, having commercial-savvy directors behind the camera matters. Whether your taste aligns with artistically ambitious types or Bay’s brand of pure entertainment, filmmakers can help differentiate one generic-seeming story from the next, and restore consumer choice. And in a market that is increasingly devaluing the director, those who develop household names are, in effect, brands themselves. If you go to see Age of Extinction, Paramount will try and sell you on the charms of Mark Wahlberg’s new protagonist to sustain the latest trilogy. Michael Bay, meanwhile, will be selling all the explosions, adrenaline, and all the summer movie popcorn fun you could wish for, lest you forget it’s his film.

Presented by

Katie Kilkenny is an editorial fellow with The Atlantic​.

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