With $186 million worldwide in its first five days, “Ready Player One” should justify its $300 million investment (give or take) in production and marketing. That’s welcome news for Warner Bros., but the biggest winner is Steven Spielberg. He didn’t need to confirm his status in American movies, and this won’t be one of his biggest hits. Nevertheless, “Ready Player One” will be his biggest success since “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal” ten years ago worldwide. Here’s why.
It’s the riskiest film in his career.
It’s hard to remember a time when Spielberg wasn’t the big-budget blockbuster king. However, this film didn’t have a genre boost, or the support of a franchise.
It confirms his blockbuster reputation.
Domestic gross for “Ready Player One” could reach as much as $170 million. That’s a hit by today’s standards, although unremarkable in the scope of Spielberg’s $5 billion career. Still, it beats his prior three films by as much as double the gross.
It lets “The BFG” be forgotten.
Spielberg’s attempt to recreate the magic of “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” and “Hook” failed with this expensive 2016 adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic. “The BFG” grossed under $60 million domestic, and less than $200 million worldwide; the loss was likely in the tens of millions. This film, and “Empire of the Sun” in 1987, are his career’s only major financial failures.
Spielberg followed “The BFG” with the much less-expensive “The Post,” which will eventually get into profit but isn’t the sort of follow-up that makes investors forget.
This hit belongs to Spielberg, not stars.
His most recent successes have been led by actors like Tom Hanks, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Tom Cruise at the top of their game. “Ready Player One” has a more-than-capable cast led by Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, and Ben Mendelsohn, but it’s not a star-driven film. Spielberg is the major draw, and he gets the credit.
He reinforces faith in the sci-fi standalone.
Most studio productions revolve around franchises — a practice propelled in no small part by Spielberg himself — and the rare standalones tend to be biographical or genre titles. In 2018, a Spielberg-directed adaptation of a bestselling, ’80s-nostalgia novel about youthful gamers is a radical idea, and this success will mean he can continue to stray from the franchise path he once blazed.
Unlike many blockbusters, Americans also love it.
Domestic exhibitors suffer when movies gross 75 percent or more overseas. (See: “Pacific Rim: Uprising,” in which North America comprises only 20 percent of its $232 million worldwide take.) But “Ready Player One” appears to be headed toward a healthy 30/70 or 35/65 split. That’s tricky these days, and gives Spielberg major credibility going forward. And with the film’s appeal in China (which has little interest in “Star Wars” films, or even “Black Panther”), this veteran talent can succeed in the world’s second-biggest market, even if most don’t know his work well.
It makes him a year-round filmmaker.
“Ready Player One” is Spielberg’s first film since his theatrical debut, “Sugarland Express” (1974), that wasn’t released in the summer or at year’s end. When “Jaws” hit in summer 1975, he changed the rules and has lived by them since.
The late-March debut for “Ready Player One” suggested to some that it might not be good enough for prime time. However, as “Black Panther” also proved, that’s an outdated opinion. Last year “Get Out” opened executives’ eyes to the wisdom of distributing major openings. (It also satisfied a longtime plea from exhibitors.) Directors, even successful ones, can be limited by a narrow definitions; showing that a somewhat offbeat, big-budget film can work off-season can only help Spielberg take additional risks.
He’s got great timing.
Spielberg caught a big break by opening in what has been — “Black Panther” aside — a bad box office period. Before “Ready Player One,” not a single film opened to more than $35 million. The biggest was “A Wrinkle in Time,” an expensive title that didn’t continue the “Panther” momentum.
With $59 million domestic over five days, “Ready” is a standout. Last year, it might not have been as impressive; March 2017 saw five films open to $40 million or more, including the barely remembered “Power Rangers.” This year, it’s practically a game changer.
It remains to be seen how much “Ready” can add to its totals (Japan and Germany are yet to open). Again, luck plays a role: The next expected major film is “Avengers: Infinity War” at the end of this month.