Before unveiling his new action opus, “Ready Player One,” to a packed theater at South by Southwest, Steven Spielberg had a confession to make. “I’m a gamer,” he said. “I’ve been a gamer ever since 1974, where I played the first Pong game on Martha’s Vineyard while filming ‘Jaws.’”
“But,” he continued, channeling a shrewd pitchman, “I really wanted to make this film with [novelist] Ernest Cline and my great screenwriter Zak Penn for people who don’t play video games. This is not just a movie for gamers.”
In other words, Warner Bros. is hoping that every human being on Earth is in the target demographic for “Ready Player One,” a sci-fi adventure set in 2045, where players compete through a virtual reality system named OASIS. The stakes are high, because the movie (which opens on March 29) has an estimated budget of $175 million. And there aren’t any A-list stars in the cast, which includes Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, and Mary Rylance as citizens of a dystopian society.
Spielberg made the trip to Austin — his first — to help boost the profile of “Ready Player One.” SXSW has a track record for helping launch studio movies into the box-office stratosphere. In 2015, the festival hosted a secret showing of “Furious 7,” which went on to gross $1.5 billion worldwide. Last year, it debuted “Baby Driver,” the sleeper hit of the summer of 2018.
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Warner Bros. Pictures executives, including chairman Toby Emmerich, were in the crowd on Sunday night, eagerly anticipating the audience reaction. “This is not a film we made,” Spielberg said. “This is, I promise you, a movie. A movie that’s got to be seen on the big screen.” He looked up. “And I’m wondering if this is a big enough screen.”
There was one technical glitch. About 100 minutes into the film, the sound went out, forcing the projectionist to restart a pivotal scene, drawing gasps and boos. But other than that, “Ready Player One” easily passed the Austin test. The crowd cheered throughout the screening, showering Spielberg with an enthusiastic standing ovation.
“This has been the greatest anxiety attack I’ve ever had,” Spielberg said, re-emerging later for a Q&A with his cast. Spielberg said there were two different kinds of movies on his palette. “I made a whole bunch of historical films, which I directed behind-the-camera,” he said, nodding to dramas like “Lincoln” and “War Horse.” “I kind of am in control of that. When I decide to make a movie, sitting in the audience with you, I direct in the seat right next to you. And your reaction is everything.”
Spielberg read the script for “Ready Player One” before he was familiar with the 2011 science-fiction novel on which the story is based. The project had an unexpected backer. “My wife, every day, she listened to the book on tape,” Spielberg said. “This is not her kind of story. She never played a video game in her life. She came back to me after three days and said, ‘Oh, you’re making this movie.’”
“Ready Player One” follows a teenager named Wade Watts (Sheridan), who is a fan boy and pop culture enthusiast. The movie is packed with classic film and video game references, from “The Shining” to “Mario Kart.” “Just remember one thing,” Spielberg said. “The side windows are for cultural references. The windshield is for the story.” But even he didn’t catch all the allusions. “We made seven passes on one shot,” Spielberg said. “And with the last pass, I said, ‘S—! Is that a Gremlin?’ ILN [Industrial Light & Magic] had snuck it in, thinking I wouldn’t notice.”
The special effects for “Ready Player One” took two years. During a lull period, Spielberg went out and shot “The Post,” the Oscar-nominated drama about Katharine Graham and the Pentagon Papers. “I’ve found when I have multiple projects, and I got lost in one of them, I’d come back to the other one with complete clarity,” Spielberg said. “My objectivity is the thing that I fear the most about losing. I get too inside the story. I can’t see it from the audience’s point of view anymore. By doing several things at the same time, I guess I have a renewal of objectivity.”
There was one notable exception to this rule — the time he made “Schindler’s List” and “Jurassic Park” in the same year. “That was a horrible experience,” he said. “I didn’t want to be approving dinosaur shots when I was in Poland, doing the story of the Holocaust.”
The after-party for “Ready Player One” was held in a warehouse space in downtown Austin, outfitted with a giant sculpture of the Iron Giant and the DeLorean from “Back to the Future,” both of which figure prominently in the film. Joan Jett performed a set of her greatest hits, throwing guitar picks into the crowd after 2 a.m. She ended by calling out the movie’s name. “Break a leg,” she said. For “Ready Player One,” Warner Bros. will take all the endorsements it can get.