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'Ready Player One,' a major studio gamble, is expected to test Spielberg's blockbuster clout

Trailer from the Warner Bros. Pictures film "Ready Player One," directed by Steven Spielberg

It used to be a surefire recipe for success for a Hollywood studio: a visually spectacular popcorn movie based on a popular novel and directed by none other than Steven Spielberg. Warner Bros.’ new science fiction epic “Ready Player One,” hitting U.S. theaters Wednesday night, is the latest test of whether the formula still works commercially.

“Ready Player One,” a dystopian science fiction adventure steeped in futuristic technology and 1980s nostalgia, is expected to gross $45 million to $50 million through Sunday in the U.S. and Canada, according to people who’ve reviewed prerelease audience surveys. That would be a respectable domestic launch for a movie that cost $150 million to $175 million to produce, according to industry estimates.

It should easily unseat “Pacific Rim Uprising” as the top film at the North American box office, and the studio is hoping audiences will continue to show up after opening weekend as kids go on spring break. Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow, which co-financed the movie, are also betting that the film will play well internationally. “Ready Player One” opens in China, the world’s second-largest cinema market, on Friday.

A high-tech gamble

Despite Spielberg’s track record — which includes such hits as the “Indiana Jones” movies, “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and “Saving Private Ryan” — “Ready Player One” is seen as a major gamble. Its source material, the bestselling 2011 Ernest Cline sci-fi book, boasts an impressive cult following, but it doesn’t enjoy the franchise cachet of film brands such as Marvel, Star Wars or DC Comics that dominate modern moviegoing.

Then there’s the question of Spielberg’s blockbuster clout. The director’s adult-oriented dramas, such as best picture nominees “The Post” and “Bridge of Spies,” have performed well at theaters in recent years, given their lower production costs. “The Post,” released just three months ago, grossed $165 million worldwide on an estimated budget of $50 million. Yet his latest commercial films, such as Disney’s “The BFG” and Paramount’s “The Adventures of Tintin,” have underwhelmed.

In a positive sign for “Ready Player One,” critics have generally praised the film for its creative rendering of the year 2045, indicated by a “fresh” rating of 83% on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie, much of which takes place in a virtual reality video game, earned an enthusiastic response from its unveiling at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, albeit with a gamer-friendly crowd.

Outside the multiplex, the movie could give a much-needed boost to the nascent virtual reality headset industry, which has struggled to achieve mainstream adoption despite rabid interest from investors. Much of the film takes place in a 3-D computer-generated world called Oasis, created by a wealthy eccentric with a love for 1980s pop culture.

Ready Players Two and Three

“Ready Player One” won’t have much competition at the multiplex as other distributors try to court specific audiences with films meant to serve as “counterprogramming.”

“Acrimony,” the latest effort by prolific director-writer Tyler Perry, is likely to gross about $10 million Friday through Sunday. The R-rated thriller, released by Lionsgate, stars Taraji P. Henson (“Empire”) as a woman who goes to extreme lengths after her husband betrays her.

Perry’s films, especially the Madea comedy franchise, have been reliable moneymakers for Santa Monica-based Lionsgate. Henson’s latest thriller, Sony-Screen Gems’ “Proud Mary,” was a box office disappointment, opening with about $9.9 million in January and grossing a total of $21 million.

Pure Flix is releasing “God’s Not Dead: A Light in Darkness” in an effort to draw Christian audiences during the Easter weekend. The third movie in the “God’s Not Dead” series, “A Light in Darkness” is expected to collect a modest $5 million. Faith-based films are struggling to compete with the recent breakout hit “I Can Only Imagine,” which has taken in $38 million.

The domestic box office has generated slightly less revenue so far this year than in the same period last year, despite the massive success of Marvel’s “Black Panther.” Movies in 2018 have grossed $2.68 billion through Sunday, according to ComScore, down 2.5% from a year ago.

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