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In 1975, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws — ushering in the age of the blockbuster — played in theaters for months, topping the box-office chart for nine consecutive weekends and playing in some cinemas for the better part of a year. Such was the tradition then, versus a quick burn.
More than four decades later, Spielberg is no doubt hoping for a return to the past after his latest popcorn film, Ready Player One, opened to $41.2 million in North America over Easter weekend, bringing the film’s four-day total to $53.2 million after rolling out on Thursday.
While the movie launched ahead of expectations in a key victory, Ready Player One‘s debut isn’t enough to guarantee success for a film that cost Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow $175 million to make before a major marketing spend. Box-office experts predict the pic will need to earn north of $420 million globally to break even, if not closer to $500 million. Ready Player One launched to $128 million overseas, timed to its U.S. bow, led by a strong $61.7 million in China for a global start of $181.2 million.
The decision to spend so much to make Ready Player One underscores the intense pressure studios face to create new franchises. The film isn’t based on widely known IP, such as a comic book, but instead draws from Ernest Cline’s novel about a teen’s quest to win control over a virtual universe.
“There seems to be a struggle for studios and producers between the notion of going out on a limb with original IP in order to draw audiences who may be tiring of the countless sequels, reboots and reimaginings, and balancing that against the tried-and-true franchises, characters and concepts that make up the majority of the top-grossing films in any given year,” says comScore box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian.
Many times, sci-fi adventures can fade relatively quickly at the box office. Ready Player One, garnering strong exits and a promising A- CinemaScore, hopes to buck that trend and instead emulate a trio of recent all-audience films — Black Panther, The Greatest Showman and Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle — that have enjoyed unusually long runs. To do that, Ready Player One will have to lure more females, considering that a large portion of the audience on opening weekend was male.
“I think having fun at the movies has sometimes been missing. The onus is on us [Hollywood] to make it worthwhile to be there. The bar is so high. Movies need to entertain on a much grander level,” says Warners president of worldwide marketing Blair Rich, whose team is given high marks for using the recent SXSW Film Festival to launch the movie. “And poring through social media and Twitter reactions, I’m finding that people are having an amazing time at this movie.”
Greatest Showman has earned $172 million to date domestically, nearly 20 times its lackluster $8.8 million opening over the Dec. 20-22 weekend. Most event films earn 95 to 97 percent of their domestic gross in their first six weeks; Greatest Showman earned more than $70 million between its fifth and 15th weekends.
Jumanji, opening over the same weekend as Greatest Showman, debuted to $36.2 million on its way to grossing $402.7 million domestically. And Black Panther, having earned $652 million to date since its release in mid-February, accounts for a staggering 23 percent of all domestic revenue earned in the first quarter.
“There does seem to be something of a paradigm shift as the notion of ‘legs’ is seemingly making a mini-comeback,” says Dergarabedian. “However, it will take more than a few examples to turn a short-term anomaly into a long-term trend.”
As fate would have it, the next big movie that could take attention away from Ready Player One is fellow Warners title Rampage, starring Dwayne Johnson.
Ready Player One marks Spielberg’s biggest domestic bow since 2008’s Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which debuted to $100.1 million but was reviled by critics. His last big-budget film, The BFG, was a resounding disappointment after opening to $18.8 million in summer 2016.
Ready Player One came in ahead of such comparable films as Ender’s Game, a pricey miss that debuted to $27 million in November 2013 and topped out at $61.7 million domestically and $125.5 million globally. More recently, Disney’s fantasy adventure A Wrinkle in Time has faltered, earning just $104.5 million worldwide to date, including $83.3 million in North America.
As for a follow-up to Ready Player One, Cline is already working on a second novel.
“Ready Player One‘s opening beat expectations and now it’s all about playability,” says Warners domestic chief Jeff Goldstein. “It is definitely eyed as something that could have sequel opportunities. The discussion was always, ‘Let’s see how the first one does.'”
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