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Chinese moviegoers love Michael Bay's 'Transformers,' but where are the critics?

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Trailer for "Transformers: Age of Extinction": It's a huge hit...in China
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Chinese moviegoers really liked the Na'vi in James Cameron’s “Avatar." But they are head over heels in love with the Autobots in Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”

The latest clashing robots sequel has shattered China’s all-time box office record set by “Avatar,” which grossed $221.9 million back in 2010. In just three weeks of release, the third “Transformers” sequel has grossed $262.3 million.

That’s substantially more than the critically drubbed action film netted in domestic theaters, where “Transformers: Age of Extinction” has taken in $208 million. While that’s certainly a relatively good haul, the comparative returns trail the first three “Transformers” films at the same point in release.

Chinese moviegoers have been inordinately kind to Bay’s films for a long time.  The original “Transformers” movie grossed $45 million in China in 2007, the 2009 sequel took in $72 million there and the third film hauled in $172 million in 2011.

Julie Makinen, a China correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, said that Chinese moviegoers are longstanding “Transformers” fans and that the new film enjoyed some particular Chinese benefits.

“‘Transformers’ has always done really well here. A lot of people grew up watching 'Transformers' cartoons like many Americans did on television in the '80s and '90s,” Makinen said from Beijing.  

But the box-office figures for the film may not be 100 percent accurate, Makinen said.

“I think everyone agrees there's some fudging that goes on. How great the fudging is is the question,” Makinen said. “It's fairly common to go into a theater, say, 'Hi, I’d like to buy a ticket for Transformers,' and they say, 'Great,’ and they print out your ticket for a local romantic comedy. So I’m pretty sure the 20 bucks I just handed over is being counted in someone else's basket. Things like that happen; a lot of statistics in China are suspect.”

She added that “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” which stars Mark Wahlberg in place of the troubled Shia LaBeouf, also was partially shot in China with some local actors to increase its appeal in the world’s fastest-growing movie market.

Beyond their affection for all things “Transformers”-related, Chinese moviegoing is unusual in several other ways, Makinen said.

Unlike American movie launches, which are backed by massive marketing campaigns, films arrive in the world’s most populous nation with hardly any commercials, coming attractions trailers or promotion.

“TV commercials are really rare,” Makinen said. “It's not a big thing here, and also trailers in the movie theater don't really exist. Most people find out online. … Movie marketing in China is also something that is really in its infancy.”

What’s more, there’s no tradition of movie reviewing: Audiences rely much more on word of mouth and social media than on critics.

“It's not something that the mass public looks at before they go out and check out a movie,” Makinen said of critical consensus. “They might look online to see what other users said, but it's not something that really impacts the box office too much. And fans are OK on this one. It got about a seven out of 10 on most user sites, but they go more for the spectacle than anything.”

You can still get your popcorn in theaters there, … but be prepared to be offered some unusual delicacies at the concession stand.

“There's usually some local snacks, like dried fish or melon seeds,” Makinen said. “In my local theater, there's a sign saying, ‘Please don’t spit your melon seeds on the floor.’”