Can ‘Ready Player One’ Save Box Office From Post-‘Black Panther’ Slump?

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Since its release, “Black Panther” has done much of the heavy lifting at the box office, with its $631 million domestic revenue — best of any superhero movie — accounting for roughly a quarter of the $2.53 billion grossed so far in 2018.

But after six weekends, “Black Panther” can no longer sustain the marketplace on its own, and in recent weeks we have seen high-budget event releases like “A Wrinkle In Time” and “Pacific Rim: Uprising” largely underperform, leading to a 37 percent drop this past weekend compared to the previous frame.

So if exhibitors are going to keep moviegoers coming in through April until “Avengers: Infinity War” comes out, they will need a new movie to draw them in, which brings us to Easter weekend and Steven Spielberg’s ode to all things geek, “Ready Player One.”

Independent trackers are split on how the film will do on its four-day opening, with some projecting a $40 million start for the reported $175 million movie, while others are somewhat more optimistic with a $55 million projection. Distributor Warner Bros. puts its projections in between with an opening in the high 40s.

Based on the 2011 bestselling novel by Ernest Cline, “Ready Player One” is a film that aims to please, with a virtual world that promises endless escapism and loads of references to geek culture. But since the film’s first trailer was unveiled at Comic-Con last year, an immense backlash has risen against the book, with people on social media criticizing the plot as derivative and overly reliant on nostalgia.

But when the film had its world premiere at SXSW earlier this month, it was met with a standing ovation from attendees and positive reviews from critics, who have given it a current Rotten Tomatoes score of 83 percent. WB is releasing the film on Thursday instead of Friday, hoping that early viewers go as crazy for the film as the crowd in Austin and form the foundation for a very strong word of mouth.

That might be the one path to profitability for “Ready Player One,” as a $40-50 million start wouldn’t be a strong start considering the film’s price tag. Several films this month like “Pacific Rim: Uprising” have needed overseas grosses to bail them out as their domestic returns couldn’t live up to their production costs. “Ready Player One” will open in 85 percent of international markets, with releases in Germany and Japan coming later next month.

But if “RP1” can gain a reputation as a fun, popcorn-munching thrill ride and intrigue moviegoers that don’t play “Overwatch” or know every “Monty Python” movie verbatim, it could have long-lasting performance in the United States over the course of the next month. For exhibitors hoping to avoid a sluggish April, this would be a very welcome gift.

“Ready Player One” stars Tye Sheridan as Wade Watts, a young man who lives in a dystopian future where almost everyone escapes their horrid reality through a virtual world called the OASIS. With the help of his friends, he sets out to complete a quest created by the OASIS’ late creator (Mark Rylance) before the head of an evil corporation (Ben Mendelsohn) can finish it and take over the virtual system.

Spielberg directed the film from a script penned by Cline with Zak Penn. The film also stars Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Philip Zhao, Win Morisaki, and Simon Pegg.

Along with “Ready Player One,” two other films are entering theaters this weekend: Lionsgate’s “Acrimony” and Pure Flix’s “God’s Not Dead: A Light In Darkness.”

“Acrimony,” the latest film from Tyler Perry, stars Taraji P. Henson as a faithful wife who concocts a plan of vengeance after discovering that her husband (Lyriq Bent) has been unfaithful. The film is projected to have a $10 million start this weekend from a budget of $20 million.

“God’s Not Dead: A Light In Darkness” is the third film in the faith-based movie series from Pure Flix, with Michael Mason taking over as director from Harold Cronk. Starring Jennifer Taylor, John Corbett, and Tatum O’Neal, the film is looking at a $5-6 million start and will go against fellow Christian film “I Can Only Imagine,” which has been a hit with Christian audiences and is expected to add substantially to $39.5 million total this Easter weekend.

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