Lorenzo di Bonaventura (W ‘86) was in crisis.
Before his time at the head of Warner Bros. Pictures, before his work on Harry Potter, before Transformers, G.I. Joe, and before the many other blockbusters that have defined his career as a producer, he was just a person in his 20s.
With a Harvard degree but not much of an idea of what he wanted to do with his life, Di Bonaventura did what many others have done when they are unsure of their paths: he went to grad school. Specifically, the Wharton School.
During his time in University City, Di Bonaventura had “the opportunity to explore a lot of different things.” At the time, MBA students could take classes at other graduate schools within Penn, which would then count for elective credit. Di Bonaventura took advantage of this program to take classes in film history and painting. At Wharton, Di Bonaventura took a chance, and decided to pursue his passion: film.
“I was always the guy who watched five movies every weekend, … and it was really a big part of my life, but I never really thought about it as a business,” Di Bonaventura says. And after leaving Wharton, he “struck out for California, not really knowing what I was striking out for, but knowing that it was something I could be passionate about.”
Once he reached the Golden State, Di Bonaventura landed a business job at Columbia Pictures. From there, during a series of management changes at Columbia, he worked his way through marketing, distribution, and eventually, creative.
Di Bonaventura credits his Wharton degree with not only giving him the first foothold into show business, but also gave him creative skills to synthesize information quickly. “I could read a lot of scripts and a lot of books and process not only the story, but also how to organize it in thinking about it as a movie,” he says.
Within his role as a studio executive, Di Bonaventura finally found the success he’d been looking for. He eventually became the head of production for Warner Bros. Pictures, where he had a knack for turning high–concept stories and books into blockbuster film franchises, like The Matrix and Harry Potter.
But in the mid–2000s, he took another risk, opting to strike out on his own as a producer after leaving Warner Bros. as opposed to continuing in studio life. Despite calling the transition “scary,” Di Bonaventura credits many people in Hollywood for “want[ing] to help me [as I] got off the ground pretty quickly.”
As a producer, Di Bonaventura spent more time on a single project than he ever did as a studio head. While he had previously overseen many projects at once, now each film represents daily effort over a period of years.
Once he found his legs as a producer, one of the first projects Di Bonaventura undertook was the first Transformers movie, released in 2007 and directed by Michael Bay. Transformers was both a continuation of what Di Bonaventura had done before and a change in pace and direction.
Additionally, as he described it, the franchises were different. Harry Potter was whimsical and magical, while Transformers had a more machinist nature. But across both franchises—and most other high–concept movies—there is a unifying force: “an essential conceit, that is somewhat preposterous … but also what makes [the movie] so wonderful and inspiring.”
And it is this conceit in Transformers—where “your car … has its own personality and you’ve underestimated it”—that made the idea so interesting to Di Bonaventura.
That 2007 movie is ancient history now. The franchise has grossed nearly $5 billion at the worldwide box office, and its seventh feature film—Transformers: Rise of the Beasts—debuted worldwide last weekend.
Despite the franchise’s tremendous success in the last 16 years, its evolution has also posed new challenges for Di Bonaventura and the rest of his creative team. Among them is that Bay—who helmed the first five installments—now serves just as a producer, and the latest film was directed by Steven Caple Jr.
Despite Di Bonaventura taking a risk hiring a younger director like Caple—Rise of the Beasts is just his third feature film—he brought a new perspective to the set, growing up around some of the earlier films in the Transformers series. To Di Bonaventura, this meant that on set, his direction had a lot of authenticity, confidence, and integrity. But Di Bonaventura and others also had to step up and provide in certain categories, especially with visual effects.
“Each director has their strengths and weaknesses, like all of us, and so your role [as a producer] changes depending on your director,” Di Bonaventura says. I’ve “had a tremendous amount of visual effects experience, [while] Stephen had not … so my role becomes helping him to learn as quick as he can to put his own imprint on how our robots are and talk and some of its design.”
Another difficulty created by such a long–running franchise is where to take the story. For instance, Rise of the Beasts is set in 1987, decades before the Bay films take place. This allowed the creative team “the freedom to tell a story that is not following the Bay films, [but] is only influenced by them in the sense that we don’t want to contradict them,” Di Bonaventura says.
Despite these challenges, Di Bonaventura, Caple, and everyone else involved in the movie delivers an overall enjoyable and crowd–pleasing experience in Rise of the Beasts. There are the kick–ass CGI set pieces one can expect from blockbuster films these days, but also some heartwarming moments with the human characters which tie everything together.
And it is in this film, just like all his previous endeavors, that Di Bonaventura uses the lessons learned in a social systems class at Wharton decades ago, such as getting large groups of people—such as a film set—to work together quickly and efficiently, and taking advantage of chances and leveraging opportunities as they present themselves.
Not to spoil the movie, but there are certainly loose ends to be picked up in future installments. And if there’s one thing to take away from Di Bonaventura’s journey so far—and where it could go—it’s that it all comes back to his time in West Philly, when he was a young graduate student searching for his future at Penn.