LOS ANGELES • Steven Spielberg aced his test.
Ready Player One, a nostalgia-soaked science-fiction adventure that marked a high-wire attempt by Spielberg, 71, to return to his crowd-pleasing roots, arrived to US$53.2 million (S$69.7 million) in ticket sales over the four-day Easter weekend in North America. Overseas audiences chipped in an additional US$128 million, with Chinese ticket buyers turning out in particular force.
Those results, boosted by Imax and other premium-priced, large-format screenings, easily make Ready Player One the No. 1 movie in the world.
Warner Bros and Village Roadshow spent at least US$155 million to make the movie, which carried more than US$100 million in global marketing costs.
Going into the weekend, box-office analysts had feared that Ready Player One might arrive to as little as US$38 million in ticket sales in the United States and Canada. Its stars, Tye Sheridan and Olivia Cooke, are not household names. Its storyline - teenagers in a dystopian future search for treasure inside a virtual-reality world called the Oasis - was exceedingly difficult to explain in marketing materials, especially without resorting to spoilers.
Neither a sequel nor a remake, Ready Player One did not have a built-in fan base beyond readers of the 2011 novel by Ernest Cline from which it was adapted.
That essentially left the movie resting on Spielberg's shoulders, a risky proposition even for a filmmaker of his stature: The original blockbuster king had not delivered a true blockbuster in a decade, not since Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull opened in domestic theatres in 2008 with US$118 million, after adjusting for inflation.
Although Spielberg has found box-office success in recent years with historical dramas such as Bridge Of Spies, his would-be crowd-pleasers, including the motion-capture fantasy The Adventures Of Tintin, have been ticket-selling disappointments.
In contrast, Ready Player One drew the most positive audience response for any fantasy or science-fiction movie directed by Spielberg since Minority Report in 2005, according to Rotten Tomatoes, which boils down reviews from critics and ticket buyers into "fresh" or "rotten" scores. Ready Player One had a "fresh" score of 76 per cent. Critics also gave the movie high marks.
Paul Dergarabedian, a senior analyst at comScore, noted that ticket-buyer surveys showed "really, really high marks" for Ready Player One from teenagers and people in their late 30s. "This film has momentum," he said.
If ticket sales continue to hold up in the weeks ahead, Spielberg will have given Warner Bros what it wants most: a new franchise.
Cline is notably working on a sequel to his novel.
For the weekend in North America, Tyler Perry's Acrimony (Lionsgate) was second, collecting US$17 million, a sturdy total for a Perry movie that does not feature Madea, his gunslinging granny.
Third place went to Black Panther (Disney), which took in about US$11.3 million. The superhero movie has taken in US$1.27 billion worldwide.