When your audience is everyone, your audience is no one.
Ready Player One releases on March 30th. I don’t expect it to do very well. I’m not going to watch it. Given the source material, I don’t know why anyone willingly would. I’ll get to my thoughts on Ernest Cline’s dystopian sci-fi novel another day. That said, it was on the list of New York Times best sellers so maybe the film will do well at the box office. Either way, that either says something about the New York Times or best sellers…
If the trailer is anything to go by, this film has no idea who its audience is or they’ve deliberately ignored them. The book has a very niche nerd appeal. Amongst other things, it’s an indulgent and exhaustive homage to 80s geek culture. The film looks like Hollywood attempting to make geek chic theatrical. It’s what happens when you take a sideline subculture and attempt to make it mainstream and cool. Guys, the nerds were never cool. They knew that and accepted it, and they didn’t realise when some boardroom hack decided you could stick thick black glasses frames on a space invader plushie and sell nerd-culture as a desirable commodity… because they were too busy arguing about space invaders on the Internet.
The person portraying protagonist, Wade, ‘Parzival’ on the OASIS, is fundamentally indicative of this. In the book Wade is not an attractive character and, if I remember correctly, is fairly overweight. In the film he’s not a bad looking bloke. Perhaps this seems like a petty reason to vomit on the film before it’s even out, but my cynicism knows few unplumbed depths. You might argue that Hollywood would never have an unattractive protagonist. Why not? Well, because attractive people get fans, the actors get talked about and as a result the film gets a longer lifespan and a larger audience. Normally, I wouldn’t care, but in this instance having a conventionally attractive protagonist runs counter to the spirit of Ready Player One. The protagonist isn’t cool, he’s not a guy who can walk into a bar and pull. The trailer seems to indicate a certain placation of an assumed audience for whom the material of the story will fly right past them. Hell, most of the uber-geeking is going to be lost on the average nerd. That’s the level of tedious minutia-level trivia that comprises a good portion of that story.
In making the target audience “average” people, they unwittingly create a disingenuous tone to the whole escapade. It’s having a guy in an expensive suit roll up from a boardroom meeting with a Tony Blair grin plastered on his face, and manufactured enthusiasm so plastic you expect it to wash up on a beach somewhere, to try and convince you that they’re “down with the kids”. Everything ends up taking on a coat of inauthenticity because the premeditated decision to make the character unrepresentative of the walking talking cliché nerd stereotypes that make up Wade’s “character”, and everyone else in the book, in favour of mass-appeal arguably means that it was done to maximise profit. When the main character takes on a pre-fabricated veneer, you naturally start wondering what else has changed to widen the appeal of film. Ironic, considering the anti-corporate themes that run throughout the book.
Ok, fair enough, nobody is expecting the film industry to not attempt to maximise their profits. That’s literally counter to what they exist for. Having said that, the problem becomes that Wade, as a character, becomes less credible as his character conflicts with his decidedly unflattering portrayal. While Wade isn’t a particularly enjoyable character, he was at least credible as an trivia obsessed ultra-nerd. Again, not my personal opinion that nerds are automatically slobs with hygiene issues, I’m literally going off the source material. If anything, to be honest, the fact that Wade wasn’t a Dorian Grey-esque ladykiller was one of the few things I appreciated about the book.
Have the bollocks to be honest with the source material. Or don’t bother. It’s been a long established fact in marketing that when your audience include everyone, you don’t have an audience. If you try to produce marketing material that appeals to all demographics, that material is bland and forgettable or schizophrenic. The same is true of all creative media: art, books, music, games, films and so on. What’s particularly stupid in this case is that Ready Player One was never going to have mass audience appeal in the first place. That’s kind of the point. Hell, it didn’t even appeal to its intended audience half the time.
I won’t be surprised if Ready Player One doesn’t do well. It’s rooted in obscure and obsessive nerd trivia from a time before the movie’s presumably intended audience were born and in trying to appeal to all audiences they won’t appeal to any. The plot certainly won’t carry it. People who want pretty boy 20-minutes into the future sci-fi pop-nerd themed hijinks are going to be alienated by the story and the constant billboarding of niche trivia, half of which is entirely irrelevant. People who want to indulge in 80s nerd culture are probably going to be put off by a protagonist that has been changed to cater to people other than them. Apparently Cline is writing a Ready Player One sequel, so we’ll have to see how well the movie does before we can judge whether the successor is likely to get any air time.
Do you expect the film to sell well?