Steven Spielberg is a national treasure, he’s responsible for some of the most memorable, most successful, and most award-winning movies over the last 45 years. And he’s still near the top of his form, as evidenced by recent and highly-regarded films The Post and The BFG.
As a producer, Spielberg’s killing it with franchises like Jurassic World, Men in Black, and the Transformers (and he’s quite active in TV and cable too). As a director, however, his more recent work isn’t crushing the box office like it did in the 70s and 80s. Over the last the decade, Lincoln was the only Spielberg film that cracked $100 million at the box office, according to IndieWire (although, many of his movies during this period were low-budget, low-expectation projects).
Spielberg’s newest film, Ready Player One, is a massive, sprawling sci-fi action-adventure with a $175 million budget — at a time when massive, sprawling sci-fi action-adventures have been hit-or-miss (see: Pacific Rim Uprising, Valerian, Ghost in the Shell). Fortunately, Ready Player One is enjoying solid early reviews, but then so was Blade Runner 2049, which failed to break even. So, what’s the early word on Ready Player One?
Unfortunately, Ready Player One is only tracking for a $35 million opening weekend (domestically). That’s not a lot. Spielberg and distributor Warner Bros. are clearly counting on the foreign market; but even if the film globally breaks $100 million this weekend, it’s unlikely to recover its budget during its theatrical run, based on historical trends. Plus, a slew of other big films — Rampage, Avengers: Infinity War, Solo: A Star Wars Story, and Deadpool 2 — are right on its heels.
So, why isn’t Ready Player One opening bigger? Doesn’t Spielberg’s name carry the weight it once did? Apparently not.
It might help to compare Ready Player One against another, recent sci-fi action-adventure movie, which just happened to blow the lid off the box office. Marvel and Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther was projected to open at $200 million this past February; it has since gone on to be one of the biggest movies of all time.
Ready Player One does not appear to have anywhere near that kind of trajectory. That’s puzzling, right?
Both Ready Player One and Black Panther are adaptations of pop-culture media (Ernest Cline’s video game novel and Marvel’s comic books, respectively). Both films employ a lot of CG, and both have a deep and fervent fan base. They’re actually much more alike than not. However, Spielberg has 45 years and 57 films under his belt, while Coogler was born in 1986 and has only made 3 movies to-date, which should tilt the board toward Spielberg. Except that it doesn’t. Seems upside-down, right?
Hollywood is undergoing a massive talent shift. The big-name directors of the 70s, 80s, and 90s, are giving way to a youth movement. Names like Russo, Coogler, DuVernay, and Villenueve are the industry’s newest darlings; whereas legends like Ron Howard, Clint Eastwood, Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Tarantino, Scorsese, and Spielberg are still out there and working, but their films aren’t packing theaters like they used to (although Cameron’s mythical Avatar films are still pending).
So what happens if Ready Player One fails? Is that the end of Spielberg? Almost certainly not, but it will certainly diminish expectations for Indiana Jones 5, which is one of several projects on his plate.
More likely, we’re watching the slow-motion sunset on Spielberg’s incredible directing career. (As well as the decline of many other great but aging directors.) Ready Player One could be Spielberg’s last big-budget hurrah, particularly if it doesn’t shock the box office. Sad, but probably true. Regardless of how Ready Player One performs, this isn’t the end of Steven Spielberg’s career — not even close — but at 71-years-old we are closer to the end than we are to the beginning.