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‘Ready Player One’: Steven Spielberg Is the King of Blockbusters, and He Needs a Hit

"Ready Player One" revives dozens of famous '80s brands in the VR action movie, but the biggest one belongs to the director himself.

“Ready Player One”

Jaap Buitendijk

It’s hard to believe that Steven Spielberg, 71, needs a hit. In 45 years as a feature director, he’s made 31 features with a total domestic gross of over $5 billion (all numbers adjusted to 2018 ticket prices). Among those, 20 films grossed over $100 million, and only two appear to have lost money: “Empire of the Sun” (1987) and “The BFG” (2016). However, at a reported cost of $175 million, “Ready Player One” is his most expensive film in a decade. And it comes at a time where, if only by Spielberg standards, his track record has fallen into something of an ebb.

Across his career, Spielberg’s movies seemed to gross $100 million almost as a matter of course. In the ’70s, there was “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “1941;” the ’80s had “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial,” “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “The Color Purple,” and “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade;” the ’90s brought “Hook,” “Jurassic Park,” “Schindler’s List,” “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” and “Saving Private Ryan;” and the ’00s were  “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence,” “Minority Report,” “Catch Me If You Can,” “The Terminal,” “War of the Worlds,” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

“Ready Player One” will be his seventh film in a decade that has seen only one Spielberg title cross $100 million: In 2012, “Lincoln” made $208 million adjusted. Six years later, that sounds impressive for a presidential biopic. However, it ranks only #17 among his 31 films; “E.T” and “Jaws” each grossed more than $1 billion domestic adjusted, and the last two “Indiana Jones” installments each grossed over $400 million domestic adjusted.

But the most recent, “Crystal Skull,” was a decade ago. That makes his return to the adventure/fantasy an interesting choice, especially at a time where comic-book movies are the genre’s go-to subsection. It suggests a desire to reestablish his credentials as a director capable of making the biggest hits.

Of his last four films, three dealt with crucial moments in American history. The other, “The BFG,” was his most expensive and proved to be a failed attempt to replicate the family appeal of “E.T.” and “Hook.” “Lincoln” was the most successful of the trio. “Bridge of Spies” and “The Post” each cost $50 million or less, pre-marketing; they grossed over $75 million domestic and about $165 million worldwide. That should put both in the black, albeit barely.

Still, that’s not a disaster — especially since he was making movies outside his action-movie sweet spot. Still, in a business where one is only as good as his last hit, taking on a big-budget project and seeing it succeed will make it easier for Spielberg to continue to make the films he’d like. (Of note: His production company left Disney after “Bridge of Spies” to go to 20th Century Fox … which is now being folded into Disney.)

“The Post”

“Ready Player One” opens Thursday to get a head start on the holiday weekend. It’s likely to reach $30 million for the opening weekend, with a four-day estimate around $40 million. While those numbers aren’t stunning, they would represent Spielberg’s best opening in a decade.

Advance reviews for “Ready Player One” place it close to “The BFG” and “The Adventures of Tintin.” (Metacritic currently ranks it at 63, lower than both of those films.) It’s based on Ernest Cline’s best-selling 2011 novel, and uses state-of-the-art FX to showcase ’80s iconography ranging from “Back to the Future” to Spielberg’s own “Gremlins.” But to succeed, it needs a big share of the “Black Panther” audience. It’s a standalone film based on relatively unfamilar IP; even with a smart cast led by Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke, it isn’t an automatic sell.

Ultimately, the biggest brand showcased by “Ready Player One” is Spielberg’s own. If “Ready Player One” exceeds advance estimates, he’ll be seen as a hero, again; the industry desperately needs its studio releases to meet our blockbuster expectations.

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