Steven Spielberg, progenitor of the modern blockbuster, finally has a big box-office win in China, the world’s soon-to-be-largest movie market.
Ready Player One, his self-proclaimed return to popcorn fare, rocketed to a strong $61.7 million start in the Middle Kingdom over the weekend, opening on 18,200 screens. It’s Warner Bros’ best opening weekend ever in China, and tops the title’s better-than-expected $53.2 million four-day bow in North America. It’s also the third-biggest Hollywood debut this year, behind only Black Panther ($67 million) and Pacific Rim Uprising ($65 million). The sci-fi adventure, also produced by Village Roadshow and Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment, earned a sizable $7.2 million of its total from 511 Chinese IMAX screens.
Perhaps best of all, local word of mouth for Ready Player has been exceptionally positive. The film has a score of 9.1/10 on both leading reviews site Douban and top ticketing platform Maoyan. The last major American movie to win such raves in China was Disney’s Zootopia, which became a runaway hit in 2016 ($236 million). Whether the strong buzz among influencers in urban centers spreads to young filmgoers in China’s third- and fourth-tier cities will determine whether Ready Player becomes a phenomenon and escapes the fate of other recent U.S. tentpoles, which have tended to open with a bang but fade just as fast.
Legendary Entertainment’s Pacific Rim Uprising appears to be fizzling in precisely that fashion. Fans of the first film turned out in force for the sci-fi spectacle’s opening, but it eroded 86 percent in its second frame, pulling in $9.2 million for a 10-day total of $89.6 million. Matching the first film’s $111.9 million China total is looking less likely by the day.
Until Dwanye Johnson’s Rampage crashes into China on April 13, Ready Player One will be able to build its China total relatively free from Hollywood competition.
The Spielberg brand got a hearty vote of confidence from China in 2015, when Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group made a sizable strategic investment in Amblin. Yet Ready Player marks the first time the legendary director has really made hay in the world’s second-largest film market.
Most of Spielberg’s early-career blockbuster output came long before the Middle Kingdom had asserted itself as a massive marketplace for consumer entertainment, and the historical work that has characterized his filmmaking since 2010 — Lincoln, Bridge of Spies, The Post — could never have been expected to lure large numbers of Chinese moviegoers into the multiplex.
A 1980s-themed adaptation of Ernest Cline’s cult novel of the same name, Ready Player One follows Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a teenage gamer on a high-stakes hunt in a VR-like video game world called the OASIS. Meanwhile, an evil corporation led by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) is also hot on the trail.
The film’s relentless 1980s pop cultural references can be expected to fly clean over the heads of most Chinese moviegoers, but the story’s themes of VR adventure — along with the roller-coaster VFX and brisk pacing — could soon prove an emphatically winning formula for China’s video game loving youth.