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Liked, where it counts most

Director Michael Bay has never been a critics’ favorite, but the thrashing he received for “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” was the worst of his eight-film career. Reviewers ridiculed the new sequel about battling robots as “beyond bad” (Rolling Stone), “bewildering” and “sloppy” (the Village Voice) and “a great grinding garbage disposal of a movie” (the Detroit News).

The early notices were so uniformly disapproving that after Bay’s traditional opening-night dinner party at Beverly Hills’ Mr. Chow, the 44-year-old director wondered aloud to executives at distributor Paramount Pictures about the possible impact of the drubbing.

He needn’t have worried: Rarely have critics been more disconnected from what audiences want and love.

Since it arrived early Wednesday just past midnight, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” sold more tickets in its first five days -- an estimated $201.2 million -- than any other movie in Hollywood history except one: last year’s “The Dark Knight” (which grossed $203.8 million in its first five days and went on to earn $533.3 million at the domestic box office). By the end of this week, “Transformers” likely will surpass “Up” and “Star Trek” to become this summer’s most-attended release.

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“I think they reviewed the wrong movie. They just don’t understand the movie and its audience. It’s silly fun,” Bay said over the weekend of the many “Transformers” critical detractors. “I am convinced that they are born with the anti-fun gene. The reviews are just so vicious. A lot of them are more personal than anything else.”

His film’s strong debut cements Bay’s reputation as one of the town’s most consistently commercial directors. A colorful personality who drives fast cars, dates knockout models, wears his shirts unbuttoned and is infamously demanding on and off his movie sets, the boyish Bay possesses one of the highest average theatrical grosses among Hollywood’s best-known directors.

Bay’s seven movies (“The Rock,” “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor,” “The Island,” the two “Bad Boys” films and the earlier “Transformers”) before the sequel averaged $152.5 million in domestic theaters, according to the website Box Office Mojo. That places him alongside “Transformers” producer Steven Spielberg (average gross: $156.9 million as a director), “Titanic’s” Jim Cameron ($163.8 million) and “The Lord of the Rings’ ” Peter Jackson ($159 million). What’s more, all of Bay’s previous movies have grossed more overseas than they have domestically.

Movie review aggregator websites assigned the film average scores ranging from 21% positive to 40% positive, with Rotten Tomatoes giving the sequel the lowest marks in Bay’s career.

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Audiences saw the movie quite differently. At the AMC Puente Hills 20 on Friday night, the majority of the film’s showings were sold out, and some “Transformers” fans waited two hours to get into an open screening.

Fred Aldaco, 23, was visiting from Phoenix, and said Bay had respected the Transformers legacy, which includes toys, comic books and an animated television series. “He did a good job with it,” Aldaco said. “They took their time and knew how they were going to do the story. You can hardly say that about any other comic book” movie director.

Although La Puente’s 27-year-old Diana Salazar didn’t know that Bay had directed the movie, she praised its execution. “It had a lot of action. It was really interesting to see the good fight scenes,” she said. “Either I like the plot or I don’t. It makes absolutely no difference who the director is.”

Paramount’s national exit polling revealed several notable facts. While the first “Transformers” film, released in 2007, skewed 60-40 toward men over women, the split in the new film was more even at 54% male, 46% female. More than 90% of those surveyed said the new movie was as good as or better than the first film. About 67% of moviegoers polled said the film was “excellent,” an even better score than that generated by Paramount’s “Star Trek,” one of the year’s best-reviewed movies.

Ian Bryce, who has produced three Bay movies (including both “Transformers” films) and also worked with Spielberg and “Spider-Man’s” Sam Raimi, said that Bay’s background in advertising -- he directed the award-winning “Got Milk?” spot about Aaron Burr -- gives him the ability to sell his characters to audiences. “Mike’s got a unique talent in being able to capture extremely commercial imagery,” Bryce said.

Bay typically shoots long 12-hour days, and while other filmmakers might assign second-unit directors to film scenes that don’t include the principal cast, Bay shoots those scenes himself and often operates the camera during principal photography too. He is notoriously demanding of his crew and prone to vocal outbursts, but Bryce noted that many of the director’s department heads come back for encore engagements. “He’s also demanding of himself,” Bryce said. “And there’s a limited number of directors who can handle this kind of movie,” he said of the $194-million production.

While Bay’s movies are best known for their over-the-top action sequences, he is developing a strong following from families, and his growing female audience suggests that for all of the film’s leering close-ups of “Transformers” costar Megan Fox’s anatomy, ticket buyers enjoy the “Transformers” love story, too.

Screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who wrote on both “Transformers” films, said that for all of the pyrotechnics you’ll find in a Bay film, there are also a number of personal, emotional touches. They said Bay was initially intrigued by “Transformers” not just because vehicles could turn into battling automatons but because the story’s lead character, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), was guarding a secret -- the fact that his car had special powers -- from his parents.

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“You know there are going to be massive explosions,” Kurtzman said, “but there is also going to be something sweet at the center of it. And that’s the secret of Michael.”

Said Paramount Pictures Chairman Brad Grey: “I think audiences are mesmerized by what he’s able to do on screen. What is unexpected for the moviegoer is that his characters have heart and warmth.” He said that while it is an “interesting question” if better reviews would have yielded better “Transformer” ticket sales, what matters for Bay’s movies is positive word of mouth, not critical raves.

Speaking from his Miami vacation home as the box-office figures piled up, Bay said his “Transformers” sequel was succeeding because it appealed to “the kid in all of us -- it’s a wish-fulfillment movie. This one is just a big, epic adventure. It’s got scope beyond belief and it’s got more heart” than the first “Transformers” movie, which grossed more than $319 million domestically.

Bay said his commercial training helped teach him the importance of lighting, camera moves and close-ups -- how to sell something as efficiently as possible.

“The one thing commercials teach you is how to convey a message in 30 seconds,” he said. “And this I know for a fact: I shoot actors -- even young actors -- as if they were movie stars. And that’s something a lot of other directors don’t do.”

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john.horn@latimes.com

Times staff writer Juliette Funes contributed to this report.

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