Ready to play (and pay)

Spielberg’s virtual reality movie proves a big hit with China’s online gamers


Olivia Cooke stars in Spielberg’s new blockbuster

As a filmmaker, Steven Spielberg has always tried to strike a balance between more substantial material and more commercial fare – he made Schindler’s List and Jurassic Park in the same year, for instance – but lately, his more serious work has performed better than some of his blockbuster efforts at the box office.

The Post (2017), Bridge of Spies (2015) and Lincoln (2012) all earned critical acclaim and financial success. On the other hand, The BFG, a family-friendly fantasy film adapted from Roald Dahl’s book, was a big flop in 2016. Similarly, The Adventures of Tintin was another commercial disappointment.

So Warner Brothers was relieved when Spielberg’s latest effort Ready Player One proved an instant hit. The nostalgia-filled science-fiction adventure has won over fans in China too, collecting over Rmb800 million ($127.1 million) in ticket sales since its release. With frenzied word of mouth – on Douban, the film and TV series review site, it has received a spectacular rating of 8.9 out of 10 – and long lines at cinemas have industry observers predicting that the film could surpass Rmb1.5 billion by the end of its run.

That would be a record for both Warner Brothers and Spielberg in China.

Ready Player One tells the story of a young hero (Tye Sheridan) joining a video-game-style quest with his crush (played by actress Olivia Cooke). Subject matter like this is tapping directly into China’s mobile gaming craze and Zhang Bowen, chief executive of Bravo Entertainment, which is promoting the film, told Entertainment Industry, an entertainment news blog, that the key to generating momentum is getting people likely to love the film to be the first to see it. Instead of promoting Ready Player One as a family-friendly flick, Warner Brothers and Bravo have targeted people who love video games so as to create a buzz.

Relying on gamers alone isn’t enough, however. Previous blockbusters like World of Warcraft and Assassin’s Creed were also based on popular video games but they flopped. And judging by the online reviews, the biggest difference lies in Spielberg’s filmmaking. “From the perspective of a film genre, Ready Player One is certainly one of Spielberg’s best sci-fi movies. Throughout the whole viewing experience, one can imagine how comic fans, gaming fans, and movie buffs would immerse themselves in the film. By the end of the film, we are left with the same warmth and sentimentality that is so often found in Spielberg’s classic films,” says ZOL.com.cn, a portal.

Chinese audiences seem to agree. “Spielberg combined his dreams, enthusiasm, love and nostalgia all into this one film. Everything he is good at, everything he knows and everything he wants to say are all in this one film. The last scene, which delivers the line, ‘thank you for playing my game,’ pushes the whole film to its climax. It is as if Spielberg himself is saying, ‘thank you for watching my film’,” one delighted netizen wrote on Douban (and you don’t get word-of-mouth much better than that).

Despite the strong performance of Ready Player One, Hollywood’s outlook on the Chinese market hasn’t been quite as celebratory. With a trade war said to be looming, many in the industry are worried that a deal with Beijing to increase the number of foreign films screening in the country – as well as getting a more favourable share of the takings – could fall through as part of Chinese retaliation against the Trump administration.

According to Variety, prior to last week’s White House threat to slap tariffs on over 1,300 products from China, many studio execs had expressed confidence that the number of foreign film imports would jump from 34 per year to as many as 50.

There were also discussions about a new agreement that would widen the range of companies allowed to work as distributors, thus boosting the financial terms for the studios, and even hopes of an end to the so-called blackout period, when foreign films are shut out to give domestic films a boost.

These periods usually coincide with the busiest moviegoing seasons, which are the Lunar New Year, the May Day holiday, the summer season from mid-July to mid-August, and the second half of December.

Talk of a trade war also comes at a time when Hollywood was showing signs of losing some of its mojo in the Chinese film market. Before Ready Player One, other major titles like Tomb Raider and Pacific Rim: Uprising, had met with negative reviews and some local commentators have even argued that regulators should import fewer Hollywood-backed films and give more of the quota to Bollywood instead.

The success of Dangal, which took Rmb1.3 billion at the Chinese box office, has seen local audiences grow more receptive to Indian films. Secret Superstar, another Bollywood export, took almost Rmb800 million during its run in January.

Last week, Hindi Medium also beat expectations, taking second place in sales behind Ready Player One. The movie, which tells the story of a couple who aspire to give their daughter the best education possible, has struck a chord with anxious middle-class parents. “From the perspective of a subject matter, Indian films are fearless in tackling controversial themes, whether it is about racial issues, or religion and politics. After the enthusiastic response in China for the several Indian films that were released in the country, China has also become more open in the discussion of religion and gender topics,” Xinhua acknowledged.


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