SXSW Film Recap: Ready Player One Premiere

Tech problems fail to dampen the excitement at star-studded event

Steven Spielberg himself was the first in a series of surprises at the world premiere of Ready Player One. Joan Jett dropped in to headline the afterparty, but the night's real unlocked achievement? The world now has a crowd-pleasing video game movie.

(l-r) Steven Spielberg, Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, Philip Zhao, Ben Mendelsohn, Zak Penn, Tye Sheridan, and Ernest Cline (Photo by Gary Miller)

Festivalgoers have gotten used to SXSW premieres at the Paramount wrapping lines around the block. Sunday night's pre-show crowd had a different sort of crackling energy coursing through it, easily attributed to not just the enormous fandom that loves the book, by Austin's Ernie Cline, but the film representing a triumphant homecoming for a "local boy done good." Throughout the huge, snaking lines fans discussed and debated their concerns about the advertising campaign, how closely the filmmakers followed the book, and whether Spielberg might show. Groups of friends large and small streamed into the theatre, evoking the image of gamer clans as they went from one objective (getting inside) to the next and most important one: finding adjoining seating. Some of them were overheard saying they had waited in line upward of four hours. Many hotly anticipated SXSW blockbuster screenings inspire fervor and excitement, but this was no mere "early screening." The people who waited for hours to get in not only wanted the movie to be good, they wanted – rather, needed – this to be a lasting memory to look back upon fondly.

Whether they invested their faith in Spielberg, their love of the book, or the communal aspect of gaming itself, this was a crowd that represented countless different "kinds" of fans. Once they settled in, filling every last seat in the Paramount and dressed in the "skins" of their fandoms, the excitement truly began.

SXSW Director of Film Janet Pierson, now in her 10th year heading the festival, has always appeared calm and collected. When she took the stage, something felt different. In her film introductions, Pierson frequently mentions her love of the communal discovery aspect of the festival experience, and you can see the joy on her face when she's about to reveal something secret to a crowd. Rumors that Spielberg may show had flown since the film was announced, but as much as Austin and SXSW have grown, few could take for granted that he would. It is difficult to recall whether a surprise filmmaker guest reveal has ever inspired as powerful of a SXSW reaction as we got last night when Pierson announced "the director of the film, Steven Spielberg."

Spielberg took the stage, noticeably excited and at once nervous and with handwritten notes in-hand as he introduced his cast, screenwriter Zak Penn, and finally author Cline. Before the film began, he only made two requests of the crowd: Spoil nothing, and think of all the pop culture references as window dressing, urging everyone to ignore what role we think they play in the film, whether based on the marketing or having read the book.

True to Spielberg's warning, the film diverges heavily from the book in various respects that would constitute spoilers. One of the most important non-spoiling changes is a much tighter focus on the power of play and finding your friends through the joy of collaborative teamwork, not unlike finding new friends in the real world on the playground. The myriad references throughout are akin to the toys friends bring along to play with, in that you may not "get" what all of them are, but the way Spielberg directs the play, they all have a new context that requires no pre-existing knowledge.

Joan Jett plays the Ready Player One afterparty (Photo by Moisés Chiullán)

During a climactic battle sequence, however, film screening tragedy nearly struck when the sound suddenly dropped out. On each of three attempts to restart, the crowd responded as if being directed as extras doing rehearsal takes, cheering just as the avatars onscreen should have been cheering. When the issue was finally resolved, the resulting roar of the offscreen crowd only validated how well the movie was going over, and carried us into the thrilling finale. The screening and all-spoilers Q&A with Spielberg, writers, and cast delivered on every objective for the crowd. The unlocked bonus level for the night came for those who headed from the Paramount to the Ready Player One Experience at Brazos Hall, where rock & roll legend Joan Jett dropped in as a surprise headliner, played all the hits, and sent everyone home buzzing.

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SXSW Film 2018, Steven Spielberg, Ready Player One, Ernest Cline

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