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‘Ready Player One’ Proves Steven Spielberg Can Still Deliver a Blockbuster

Steven Spielberg enjoyed his best opening in a decade with “Ready Player One.”

The virtual reality fantasy released with a healthy $53 million at the North American box office and picked up an additional $128 million overseas, bringing its global total to $181.2 million. That was enough to land the director of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” and “Jurassic Park” his biggest debut since “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” launched in 2008 with $100 million.

As for his last popcorn movie that wasn’t already part of a multi-million dollar franchise? That would be another novel-turned-big screen event, 2005’s “War of the Worlds,” which premiered with $64 million. That alien invasion flick got a boost from Tom Cruise’s star power (though his Oprah couch jumping did lead to some unwelcome pre-release publicity).

Recent projects have highlighted a different side of Spielberg, with the Oscar-winning filmmaker devoting much of his energy to historical dramas geared toward adults, such as “The Post,” “Lincoln,” and “War Horse.” And while his movies aren’t breaking records like they once did with “Jaws,” “Jurassic Park,” and “E.T.,” as of now, Spielberg seems to be in good shape after a couple of embarrassing box office bombs.

Spielberg’s last few big-budget films, both targeted at family auds — 2016’s “The BFG” and 2011’s “The Adventures of Tintin” — didn’t land with moviegoers, but analysts point to “Ready Player One” as a reaffirmation of the commercial credentials of a man whose name is synonymous with the modern day blockbuster. After all, he basically created the concept of the summer escapist fantasy with 1975’s “Jaws.”

“It put Spielberg right back in his sweet spot,” Paul Dergarabedian, an analyst at comScore, said. “He was one of the architects of the summer movie season. It shows that when Spielberg goes back to what people loved about him in the first place, it really pays off big.”

“Ready Player One,” based on the Ernest Cline novel, plays like something of an ’80s’  greatest hits compilation. Its virtual reality setting allows Spielberg to stuff the film with nods to such Reagan-era staples as “Back to the Future” and “Nightmare on Elm Street.” Audiences seem to be hungry for what could be considered Spielberg’s bread and butter — the family-oriented sci-fi epic.

Opening weekend drew a heavily male audience at 59%. A majority of the audience, 56%, was over 25, showing the appeal of the nostalgic themes.

“This takes him back to his early days where he was focused on driving younger moviegoers to the movies,” Dergarabedian said. “We shouldn’t be surprised younger moviegoers have gravitated toward the film, but older audiences as well, who grew up on Spielberg movies.”

With a reported budget of $175 million, “Ready Player One” will need strong results both domestically and overseas for several more weeks to be profitable. The brand familiarity of Spielberg, bolstered by a generally positive critical consensus, will continue to drive interest, Dergarabedian said.

“This is Spielberg doing what Spielberg does best,” he added. “Now people will come out in bigger numbers who are hearing about it and reading about it and seeing the positive social media sentiment.”

And it’ll help that R-rated comedy “Blockers” and fast-paced thriller “A Quiet Place,” both aiming for strong openings next weekend, don’t completely overlap with “Ready Player One’s” target audience. That leaves about a month until the next potential blockbuster — “Avengers: Infinity War.” Dergarabedian points to that duration between all ages-fare as a win for Spielberg and company.

“In this marketplace, if you have a wide open playing field, that’s a luxury that most movies don’t get,” he said. “This is a good thing. The playability will be there.”

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