Controls in Pop Culture

Only in the Movies: Export Compliance Gets a Hollywood Rewrite

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen Transformers: Age of Extinction yet, you may want to delay reading this week’s blog!

The summer blockbuster movie season is in full swing, with Transformers: Age of Extinction appearing at the top of the box office standings over the Fourth of July weekend. But while the film may be a crowd pleaser, it gets an “F” when it comes to export compliance authenticity. It’s not that any of the characters are dodging their Export Control Reform (ECR )reclassification obligations, or not saving their restricted party screening records for the required five-year period. Rather, it’s the film’s treatment of military-use items that’s leaving movie-going export compliance professionals tossing handfuls of popcorn at the screen.

This installment of the Transformers saga finds the Autobots in hot water. The government has labelled all transformers as threats. They’re at risk of being hunted down and destroyed, so quite understandably they’ve gone into hiding. Eventually with the help of human friends they set out to uncover exactly why they’re being hunted (wouldn’t you want to know, too?) Making their way to a Chicago-based company called KSI, they discover a techie-type who’s been working with the CIA and a Chinese entrepreneur to create man-made Transformers (gasp!) These Transformers are destined for military use (bigger gasp!)

This is where the export compliance officers in the theater begin to snort derisively. Was the entrepreneur from China ever the subject of denied or sanctioned party screening? Did KSI apply for the right license to welcome their Chinese guest, or did they push any deemed export violation concerns under the rug and simply buy him a first-class plane ticket? Would it be that easy for a Chinese national to come to the U.S. and work with military use items? The last time we checked with the Department of State, China was an ITAR-prohibited country.

Later in the movie, due to circumstances we won’t reveal here, KSI swiftly decides to pack it in and continue operations at their Hong Kong facility, moving all their equipment – equipment for producing military-use autobots that are powerful enough to fight off mighty drones – overseas to China. A major character who’s a valued American inventor decides she is going, too. The ease with which these arrangements are made would make any export compliance worker shudder in disbelief.

We know that a movie is a movie, and a little summer escapism is to be expected from an action flick. But suspending disbelief can be tough when it comes to witnessing such blatant compliance violations. It’s hard to lose oneself in the plot when all you want to do is shout at the characters, “Do you know how big a FINE that’s going to be?”

If you feel you can’t contain your outrage, you just may need to excuse yourself and head to the lobby for another box of chocolate-covered almonds.