Based on the hit book of the same name, Ready Player One is finally ready to hit theaters. The story follows Wade (Tye Sheridan), a high school student living in 2045 Columbus, OH amid “The Stacks,” a series of makeshift apartments built out of stacked together campers, trailers and other vehicles. That’s the only kind of living space most people can afford due to extreme poverty, lack of natural resources and other societal problems that have cropped up. The only place he and his friends go is The OASIS, a virtual world that’s free to use and which is where school is held, work is done and fantasies played out.
The creator of The OASIS James Halliday (Mark Rylance) has died and left behind an unusual legacy: He’s hidden the key to controlling The OASIS somewhere within the world itself. While Wade can’t afford the fancy gear others can, he has studied Halliday obsessively, including the genius’ fascination with the pop culture of the 1980s and 90s. So he sets out to see if he can find the key, literally an “easter egg” Halliday has placed behind a series of puzzles and riddles.
Wade and his friends Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) and Aech (Lena Waithe) aren’t the only ones searching, of course. In addition to the millions of other OASIS users there’s also Innovative Online Industries, a massive corporation headed by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), who want to monetize The OASIS and turn it into big business. So Wade and his team are not only out for fame and glory, but also to make sure The OASIS remains the world of escapism and connection people like him so desperately need.
Oh…the movie is directed by Steven Spielberg. Did I not mention that?
The initial teaser poster, released around the time of Comic-Con, didn’t feature much other than the title treatment placed in the middle of a blacked-out egg shape (hinting at the easter egg everyone’s hunting for) and the exhortation to “Break free.” The next promised “A better reality awaits” while it showed Wade climbing the ladder up the Stacks
Wade is at the center top of the theatrical poster, pulling his VR goggles away from his eyes while all the other supporting characters are arrayed around him, though Sorrento is looking down on him ominously and there’s a wizard in the background. The bottom half of the poster shows the vehicles and avatars used in the VR world, including the Iron Giant, the DeLorean from Back to the future and more. At the center of it all, behind the title treatment, is the glowing easter egg that is what everyone is after.
The designers here seem to have worked so hard to create a Drew Struzan feel here I wouldn’t be surprised if one or more of them needed to be in traction for an extended period of time. The photo-realistic painting, the use of actual design principles…it’s absolutely meant to bring you back to the posters for Star Wars, Goonies and other works from the master.
Each character got their own one-sheet, the real person standing on a pedestal in the foreground while the face of their OASIS avatar is in the background, color coded to help differentiate them.
A whole series of posters were released to promote specific release formats, one for Real 3D, one for IMAX and so on. They all were much more tech-focused than the main poster, using images of Wade playing with his OASIS goggles or something like that, usually with neon and other bright lighting around him, an effect that usually caused me to think of TRON, which probably wasn’t an accident. One final poster has Wade and his allies standing triumphantly on a hill, their avatars in the space above them while the real world is on one side in the background and the OASIS on the other.
There was also a set of posters that got people talking and which reinforced some of the pushback that was developing toward the movie. (More on that below.) These posters inserted Wade and other characters into the one-sheets for movies like Back to the Future, The Breakfast Club, Bullett and others. The reaction was pretty negative as people felt they desecrated the originals and that this was part of the horrible co-opting of classic films and nostalgia in general that was a major theme of the marketing and the movie itself. As with most things, this point was massively overstated and ignored how this kind of thing is done all the time. Everyone loves it when Disney makes a bunch of Zootopia-themed variations on Oscar contending posters, but this execution is apparently heresy. I’m confused. They’re fine. It makes sense. I don’t get the outrage.
The first trailer, which debuted at Comic-Con, is all about world-building. We hear about what the world is like in 2045 and how the young people of that generation escape to The OASIS whenever they can. Shots of The OASIS show it allows people to play as and interact with anything they want, including classic pop-culture characters and props like The Iron Giant, the DeLorean from Back to the Future and more.
There’s not much story here, just hints as to what’s going on. The visuals certainly are impressive and I’m on board for most anything that uses Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” in its marketing. Hyperbole is a bit much, though. Is this really the “Holy Grail of pop culture” because that seems questionable. Less objectionable is Spielberg being called a “Cinematic game changer” but that’s pushing it based on the marketing team’s desire to include the word “game.”
Wade introduces himself in the first full trailer, which establishes the state of the world he lives in and how The OASIS is an escape for much of the population. We see that people come there to experience unlimited potential thanks to Halliday, who we see offer his challenge to the person who can find the easter egg he’s planted. Like everyone else, Wade sets out to find it but soon gets on the radar of people who want to control it themselves and want him gone. It becomes a mission to save The OASIS, something Wade states outright in a rallying speech at the end when he seemingly is fully a part of the rebellion against those in control.
It’s a much more coherent trailer that outlines the story more fully and effectively, showing that there is *something* other than cool visuals and pop culture references the movie will be relying on.
There’s no mention of easter eggs or anything else in the next trailer, which sells the movie more as a Hunger Games-like story of youth rebelling against some sort of tyrannical system. So there’s mention of rebellion and a few different reminders of the life or death stakes being faced by Wade and his friends. There’s also more of Lena Waithe, which isn’t surprising given her stock and profile have risen significantly in the last few months.
That’s contrasted with the final trailer, which spends the entire first half of its running time with Wade narrating the premise of the story, explaining how Halliday left clues within the OASIS that would unlock all its secrets and grant the person who found the final prize complete control over the virtual world. It’s clear there are those with more profit-driven motives on the hunt as well, but the second half jumps right back to the spectacle of car chases involving dinosaurs and other set pieces.
Online and Social
After the final trailer plays when the official website loads you’re shown the leaderboard for the Halliday-inspired quest Wade and everyone else is on. The main page has links to “Get Tickets,” view “Videos” or “Join the Quest.” The last option opens up a new site with clippings about Halliday, posters from the movie and other media, all of which you’re supposed to use to solve the puzzle yourself. There are even browser-based versions of classic games like Defender and Joust that are important to the story which you can play.
Moving over to the hamburger menu on the left – just next to where the movie’s Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles are linked to – the first section is the “Arcade” where you can play all those games. After that is the “OASIS Experience,” which is just a promotion for Hot Topic.
The “Gallery” has some but not all of the posters, not by a long shot, as well as a few stills. “Partners” has information on some of the promotional partners WB signed up. Then there are links to the movie’s “SXSW Schedule,” the “Soundtrack” and more, including
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
The movie’s first TV spot was really weird. Titled “Easter Eggs,” it starts out normal, just like the trailer, with Wade talking about how he wishes he’d grown up in the 1980s and with the same nostalgia-themed scenes we saw in the first trailer. But then it ends showing a screeching, partially-obscured clown, like it’s interrupted a broadcast. I’m not sure if this is part of the story in some manner, but it’s a big and sudden change in tone for the marketing.
More TV spots were aired during the NFL playoffs, with one spot framing the story around Halliday’s challenge to people to find the easter egg he’s planted in order to win and assume total control of the OASIS and another with Wade acting as the inspirational leader, rallying citizens to rise up against corporate oppressors.
Given the overtly commercial nature of the movie as well as its tech-heavy themes, it wasn’t surprising there were a number of companies that signed on as promotional partners, including:
- Vive, which created a number of VR experiences for users of that tech to enjoy.
- Visa, which offered screenings to cardholders
- Lootcrate, which created a special movie-themed mega-crate and which helped promote the SXSW experience
The “Join the Leaderboard” sweepstakes linked to on the official website was part of a massive game that awarded winners who discovered “keys” some substantial gifts, including free movies until 2045 from Atom Tickets, 27 years of Spotify Premium or free Lyft rides until 2045.
Facebook used the movie as one of the first tests of new kind of augmented reality experience, one that adds AR element – in this case the world of the OASIS – to the movie’s poster using location trackers.
A real-life experience was created in Los Angeles that allowed people to enter the world of the movie physically. Dubbed the Ready Player One Challenge: The Maze, visitors had to solve a puzzle while interacting with both tech installations and real actors to get out while also seeing exclusive film content.
Social media posts used various videos while a massive general online ad campaign put the movie’s key art across the web. Warner Bros. also made headlines as one of the first sponsors of the popular app-based game show HQ Trivia, a sponsorship that allowed the game to offer a $250,000 prize just days before the movie came out. The deal included the addition of questions related to the movie.
Media and Publicity
Cline, the writer of the source novel, kicked off the publicity campaign in a big way by announcing a contest for designers to create their own avatars to be featured in the movie’s depiction of Oasis. Later on while promoting other things, Mendelsohn talked about the changes being made to the story’s Big Bad for the movie version.
The highly-anticipated first look at Wade in the van he uses to hide out in and wearing the headset he uses to access The OASIS popped up in Entertainment Weekly’s San Diego Comic-Con preview issue.
Spielberg was part of the assemblage at the movie’s Comic-Con panel, where he talked about the classic IP that would show up in the story and the role it all plays. Mendelsohn also talked there about the position his slightly villainous character is in and what motivates him.
A big feature on the details of the OASIS and what it means to the story, along with a brief interview with Spielberg, was included in Entertainment Weekly around the same time the first full trailer was released. That same period included the announcement Cline was planning to write a sequel to his hit novel.
A featurette with Cline had him talking about working with Spielberg and how the novel was inspired by the filmmaker’s work, while Spielberg talked about loving the both forward- and backward-looking nature of the story.
There was a massive installation at SXSW (a good venue for tech-meets-movies) that involved giving people the ability to play VR versions of classic video games, design their own avatars and, of course, visit a Hot Topic-run pop-up shop featuring lots of movie-themed items. A special event there was live-streamed on Twitch and IMDB. Surprising no one, the movie wound up as special “secret” screening at SXSW attended by Spielberg, a screening that wound up generating quite a bit of positive buzz and word of mouth among critics and journalists there.
That SXSW screening also seemed to at least tamp down a backlash that had begun forming against the movie. It’s hard to pinpoint when exactly that started but it seemed that people were taking issue with how the film was apparently going to rip off nostalgia culture just to make a quick buck.
It’s hilarious to me that “this just exploits nostalgia” would be a point of criticism for the movie considering that so much of what we’ve called “pop culture” for the last decade has been driven by and successful because of how it exploits nostalgia. Having walked around Comic-Con for five years I can attest that nostalgia for the 1980s is big business with plenty of willing buyers. If you ever convinced a parent to buy you a $3.99 3-¾” G.I. Joe action figure while they were dragging you around KMart in 1985, you’re the center of the target market for the $79 half-scale resin bust of that character’s head that’s available from a dozen vendors. That 2016’s Paul Feig-helmed Ghostbusters *DIDN’T* sufficiently pay homage to nostalgia for the original was the primary reason (other than the overt sexism, of course) so many people hated it. We literally just had this discussion with The Last Jedi as some people felt it wasn’t the nostalgia-high they were hoping for. All this proves there’s no pleasing some people, they just want to complain because they know the *real* way these things should be handled. [endlessly smacks head against wall]
Back to the point, around SXSW there were a number of additional stories about the film, including a profile of the lead creator of how Vive and TheWaveVR created and got approval for the VR experience tying in to the campaign, one that recreated some aspects of the movie’s story but apparently didn’t feature the pop culture elements because of copyright considerations.
After decades of the press wondering when Spielberg was going to put his childhood behind him, feature profiles like this one in The New York Times now wondered out loud if he was going to be able to remember what it was like to be young at heart. To some degree that’s because some of his more fantasy-based films of late have fallen flat with critics and audiences while his more dramatic fare has performed better. But success does not represent the whole of his output.
In the final couple weeks before release the cast went out and about, including Ben Mendelsohn appearing on “Late Night,” a substantial feature story on Lena Waithe as she enjoys her time in the creative spotlight, another interview with Waithe about her character and more.
A few stories like this one from Bloomberg appeared in the last couple months that called out how the movie as a whole, as well as the partnerships from companies like Vive, could create a mainstream breakout moment for virtual reality.
There was also an “EW” cover story that contained lots of new interviews and updates about the movie, including Spielberg talking about how he didn’t want any of his previous films included or referenced – preferring to highlight others’ cultural contributions – but that the production crew worked them in anyway. Both Spielberg and Cline sat down for a joint interview where they talked about their shared love of all things pop culture.
There are issues with the book, I’m the first to admit that. It’s a decent, enjoyable bit of dystopian fiction that serves as Cline’s love letter to the culture he grew up with and I don’t think claims to be anything more than that.
So, to reiterate the point I’ve made a few different times above, I don’t understand the instant dislike of this movie that’s festered before anyone got a look at a single frame. “I love the 80s!” has been the defining war cry of the entertainment media world for at least a decade, since Michael Bay’s first Transformers movie. It’s the North Star right now as everyone wants to cash in on Gen Xers who may not have the disposable income to spend on themselves but who are more than happy to buy their kids the high-end My Little Pony or Masters of the Universe replicas that actually aren’t for them.
Maybe that’s the problem. Maybe it’s gone on too long and Millennials are ready to be done and move on. Why not, Gen X had a decade where we finally wrested control from Boomers, who refused to give up their own culture to the point where we still had to hear about it every goddamn time we tried to listen to our own music, MOM, and before we had to get out of the way for the next generation. I’m not resentful about that at all.
Anyway, I can’t argue with the point that the movie is being sold as Spot The Reference to a great extent. I do think, though, that people who are calling that out are the same ones who are pouring over every Marvel Studios film looking for the easter eggs and clues that hint at future films or other characters. So it’s not that they have a problem with that tactic, it’s just not being done in a way that rewards them being more clever than anyone else.
The campaign has evolved from one that laid out the foundations of the world the story takes place in to one that sold a fast-paced tech thrill ride. Ignore all the nods to Last Action Hero seen fleetingly on a theater marquee and the pitch isn’t that different from any other being made.
If you can get past that the message of the campaign is that you have to stand up for yourself the safe spaces that help you feel at home when no place else does. If family is who you surround yourself with as much as it is who you’re related to, the same goes for home.
It turns out the real Ready Player One was the friends we made along the way.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.