The Corporate Art of the Deal

IMAGINE THAT IT’S 2044, and everyone is still listening to Duran Duran. This dystopian scenario is essentially the premise of Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, in which the 1980s have resurged to cultural dominance (with some excurses to the ’70s and ’90s). Citizens of the future groove to George Michael and the Bee Gees, cite Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and cruise around in DeLoreans like Marty McFly. They absorb and propagate ’80s pop culture through the OASIS, an enchanting virtual reality that provides the sole distraction from environmental degradation and massive inequality. When the film begins, James Halliday, the OASIS’s reclusive and enigmatic creator, has died and left his fortune, along with control of the whole virtual system, to an intrepid seeker able to unlock a series of intricate clues, each one relating either to 1980s nerdom or Halliday’s life story. We follow Wade Watts, a plucky young upstart, as he and his friends battle Nolan Sorrento, a corporate CEO, for control of the OASIS. Critics have observed that this film is Spielberg’s pro-capitalist defense of his artistic legacy and the decades intertwined with it. But few realize that the film defends not only Spielberg’s career as a director, but also Time Warner’s business strategy. Ready Player One is an instance of near-perfect alignment of the motives of both superstar director and Hollywood studio: an apologia for corporate artwork.

To understand the film’s defense of corporate artistry, it is useful to remember that Spielberg is often accused of singlehandedly ruining Hollywood. “Why are movies so bad?” The New Yorker critic Pauline Kael wondered rhetorically while being interviewed in 1985. “One hates to say it comes down to the success of Steven Spielberg, but…” She left a pregnant pause. For critics like Kael, Spielberg, along with George Lucas and others, shifted the production model in Hollywood away from introspective low-budget pictures helmed by auteurs — like Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider (the so-called Hollywood Renaissance) — to blockbuster productions with ever-proliferating sequels and extensive advertising campaigns. Spielberg’s critics insist that his blockbusters are “infantilizing” or even “totalitarian” in their unreflectiveness and focus on spectacle. At the same time, the popularity of the blockbuster has enabled Spielberg to become the highest grossing director of all time, personally worth $3.6 billion. And while Spielberg began as a countercultural auteur, or so the legend goes, there is also good evidence to suggest that he was sanguine about corporate production from early in his career. Like Halliday and, one day, Wade, his obvious doubles, Spielberg is a multibillion-dollar creator of artworks for the masses, and the battle in the film between Wade and Sorrento is a battle over the legacy of the cultural meaning of the 1980s, the nature of corporate productions, and by extension Spielberg’s oeuvre. Was the culture of the ’80s all just for profit and in bad taste, with Sorrento as its true heir, or, following Wade, can we find something redemptive underneath the shoulder pads, hoop earrings, and acid-washed jeans?

Halliday’s Golden Egg

Spielberg’s deepest reckoning with the implications of the corporate artwork of 1980s Hollywood appears in the form of the Golden Egg, the prize for winning Halliday’s contest. The Egg is derived from three different sources, all of which showcase a symbiosis between corporation and artist. In the final challenge for control of the OASIS, Wade’s adversary, Sorrento, makes the error of playing the 1978 Atari 2600 game Adventure with the hope of winning the game, but Wade realizes that he needs to play not to win, but to find the Easter egg inside it: the name of Adventure‘s programmer, Warren Robinett. That hidden name was actually the first Easter egg in video game history. In an interview, Robinett explained that he secretly concealed his name within the game because he felt exploited by the corporation producing it: “But on the package it said basically ‘Adventure, by Atari.’ And we were only getting salaries, no cut of the huge profits. It was a signature, like at the bottom of a painting.” Robinett’s Easter egg implies that there is an individual painterly artist, a figure of subversion, locked within the conglomerate-controlled culture of the ’80s. Ready Player One similarly encourages the viewer to seek out the many Easter eggs, the allusions to other cultural products, tucked away within the film, but in Spielberg’s case, they are planted with — and not in spite of — corporate supervision. Spielberg thereby shows that what began as an adversarial strategy, in which an artist secretly hid his name within a game to gain just recognition, can become a deliberate method to further both the director’s art and the studio’s brand.

The Egg also alludes to the decorative glass egg in Risky Business, a film that provides a model of artistry that blends an auteurist sensibility with mass-market appeal. The Egg itself combined the two: it was produced by artisanal crystal firm Steuben, which took inspiration from modernist and art deco designs, even as it also sold expensive products out of a store on Madison Avenue. Analogously, Risky Business‘s director Paul Brickman described the film as a tribute to Bernardo Bertolucci’s art film The Conformist, with a soundtrack by electronic music pioneers Tangerine Dream; at the same time, it catered to consumer tastes formed by soft-core porn and teen sex romps like Porky‘s (1981). In other words, Risky Business shows another strategy for collaboration between director and studio, one to which Spielberg has resorted throughout his career: combining art film techniques with popular genres.

The glass egg of “Risky Business” (1983)

But in deciphering the Golden Egg, the most important reference is actually to the early 1970s, to the Golden Ticket of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, a film that inspired Ernest Cline to write the novel on which Spielberg’s film is based. While Adventure represents an antagonistic model of corporate production — in which the artist secretly inscribes his intentions for devoted fans — Willy Wonka explicitly celebrates a corporation that works in tandem with the artist. Willy Wonka was, in fact, an elaborate corporate advertisement; the film’s director, Mel Stuart, convinced Quaker Oats to enter the filmmaking business for the first time in order to market its new Wonka line of candy. Ironically — or perhaps not — while Wonka candy mostly failed, the film has endured. In its story, too, Willy Wonka emphasizes the synergy between producer and artist. In choosing not to sell the Everlasting Gobstopper to Slugworth, Charlie decides to put the interests of the corporation above his own best interests, just as Wade does when he refuses to sign a contract that would give him sole ownership of the OASIS. Wonka provides a model for the artist whose fidelity to the benevolent corporation enables his creativity. Wonka’s Chocolate Factory underwrites his ingenious, if sometimes impractical, inventions, while in the real world, Quaker Oats agreed to produce the film itself.

In spite of all the references to Duran Duran, the Bee Gees, Michael Jackson, or Van Halen, there’s one song that really matters to Ready Player One: a cover of Wonka‘s “Pure Imagination,” which plays over the film’s trailer, updated for Spielberg’s virtual universe with the addition of synthesizer and autotune. “Pure Imagination” is a song that was produced specifically for Willy Wonka and harks back to the days of studio-controlled Hollywood musicals, but it simultaneously disavows profit by insisting on the purity of imagination. It’s also a song that, in its many covers, took on a life of its own, outliving the context of its production. This mode of reproduction by pastiche, exactly what Spielberg showcases in Ready Player One, implies that a corporate product, though created under the sign of the profit motive, can become an enduring artistic creation, subject to interpretation and reinterpretation. Whether “Pure Imagination,” the Everlasting Gobstopper, or the OASIS, the ideal corporate product, like the ideal aesthetic product, is one that will outlast time, perpetually engaging the consumer’s attention. For Spielberg, Wonka reveals that conglomerates exerted control over film production even before his early blockbuster Jaws; when it comes to Hollywood, even pure imagination is imbricated with corporate product.

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Once we see that Spielberg is pointing to the intertwined visions of director and corporation, Ready Player One looks like a celebration of one corporation in particular — Warners — and of the corporate vision — the vertically integrated multimedia conglomerate — that has underpinned it for the past 50 years. The media conglomerates of the 1970s and ’80s could underwrite the Hollywood blockbuster’s high risk and high reward because they had diversified their holdings by investing in a number of different industries: film, television, video games, et cetera. The pioneer of this model was CEO Steve Ross at Warner Communications. His empire included not just movies and music but also parking lots, rental cars, and funeral parlors. All three of the Easter egg’s sources — Atari’s Adventure, Risky Business, and Willy Wonka — are or were once Warners’ multimedia intellectual property, produced or acquired during the era of conglomerate control. While Ready Player One is remarkable for having struck IP deals with many of the major studios, allusions to Warners’ intellectual property predominate because the rights to their own IP were easier to secure: The Iron Giant, The Shining, Kong: Skull Island, DC Comics, Looney Tunes, Mad Max, Nightmare on Elm Street, and so on. When the film encourages viewers to hunt for Easter eggs within it, to find their own Golden Eggs, it encourages them to dive back into old Warners’ IP across different media, to make them realize the depth and texture of that IP.

“Ready Player One” promotional material, a play on Warner Bros. IP

What would it mean to read the film as celebrating not just Spielberg but also Warners’ culture, to think of the film not only as Spielberg’s creation but also as Warners’ advancement of a particular agenda at this moment in time? One obvious answer is that Ready Player One promotes virtual reality as a medium for the masses, a potential boon to both Time Warner and Spielberg, who have invested in virtual reality technologies as the next multimedia frontier. But Warners also has a particular motive for celebrating the vertically integrated media conglomerate as more devoted to the production of artwork than the production of profit: its proposed vertical merger with AT&T, which has been held up in an antitrust case since November 2017. The Justice Department and the mergers’ critics predict that AT&T will charge other cable and telecommunications providers more in order to feature Time Warner content, thus enabling it to raise its own prices or else to encourage frustrated consumers to subscribe to AT&T. Initially, the idea that the film promotes this controversial merger may seem paradoxical: the drama of Ready Player One revolves around the threat that a corporate takeover could pose to the marketplace for entertainment. Cline, who co-authored the screenplay, explains the protagonists’ aversion to their corporate rival in terms that could be used to describe fears about the AT&T/Time Warner merger: the “idea of [the OASIS] being taken over by a conglomerate that would monetize it and take away their freedom is horrifying to them.”

Wade and the other spunky protagonists seem to fit Cline’s description — they fight to ensure Net Neutrality, working to prevent the merger of Gregarious Games and IOI, which would represent the world’s largest two corporations coming together in a monopoly. That newly formed corporate behemoth would exist to provide better and more advertising and to create a tiered OASIS with different tracks of users (Platinum, Gold, Silver, et cetera). Sorrento proclaims enthusiastically that they would be able to fill the screen with 80-percent advertising before a customer has a seizure. IOI’s “Loyalty Centers,” in which individuals are imprisoned in order to work off their debt in the virtual world, suggest a similar vision: a world in which corporate loyalty is enforced rather than won in the marketplace for content.

But Time Warner claims that it doesn’t see itself by the light of its lucre. It insists that its merger with AT&T would not form a monopoly at all. Rather, it would allow both companies to compete with Netflix and Amazon who own both content and distribution, as well as with Google and Facebook who dominate the advertising market. In order to evade the Justice Department’s claims that it would use Time Warner’s content to entice or else bludgeon users into favoring its network, AT&T and Time Warner respond that both companies are dedicated only to the production and equal distribution of better entertainment and more tailored advertising, which they argue will actually benefit consumers. Time Warner frames itself as a company that wants to produce conglomerate synergy and creative entertainment, not to engage in predatory or discriminatory pricing; it describes the merger as furthering its “ability to innovate, develop and deliver the next generation of video services.” AT&T likewise imagines the deal as furthering “the next great phase of video innovation,” with “interactive programming.” It argues that the deal is “about expanding the distribution of Time Warner’s content, not restricting it” and about pioneering new content for mobile devices and social media.

Remembering that AT&T/Time Warner is trying to promote itself as a company that would be devoted to the production and proliferation of content, and not the partitioning of the internet, helps explain a subtle but crucial change between Ready Player One the novel and Spielberg’s film. In the novel, Sorrento’s IOI (Innovation Online Industries) is the Internet Service Provider, whereas Halliday’s Gregarious Simulation Systems provides the programming of the OASIS. But in the film, Gregarious Games (renamed to misleadingly emphasize content) controls the OASIS exclusively; it provides both service and content, while IOI sells virtual reality headsets and gear. In its structure and content deployment strategy, Gregarious Games is thus exactly what AT&T will be in the event that it’s able to merge with Time Warner: a hybrid of network and content provider.

The film’s disavowal of a certain type of corporation — one hungry for profit and ambivalent about the user’s experience is precisely the same disavowal that AT&T and Time Warner need to bring off in order to win their lawsuit. The villain of the film, IOI’s CEO Nolan Sorrento, represents the disavowed type, which promotes not so much corporate art as corporate advertising. As opposed to Halliday, the self-avowed acolyte of Bill and Ted, Sorrento is the “corporate asshole” who doesn’t “appreciate pop culture,” the clueless ignoramus who can’t keep straight his New Trier High School (The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller‘s Day Off) and his Faber College (Animal House), and who enthuses instead about shareholder value, advertising, and tiered-levels of Oasis access. IOI even evokes Facebook insofar as it is devoted to advertising, VR headsets (Facebook owns Oculus), and the invasion of privacy, harvesting Wade’s data without his consent.

By contrast, Halliday, Wade, and Gregarious Games represent a corporate behemoth that seems to own both IP and network but that truly cares about traditional creative content — which is what AT&T/Time Warner claims it would be. In spite of appearances, Ready Player One is not the triumph of the little guy over the corporate behemoth; rather, it’s the triumph of one large corporation, focused on artwork, over another, focused on profit. Halliday’s and Wade’s vision would keep the airwaves open to all; they would encourage the production of better IP within the OASIS; and they would operate it as a corporation but without sucking the soul out of the OASIS by partitioning it. While Wade and his friends ultimately do institute some anti-competitive rules (e.g., mandated time off from the OASIS on Tuesdays and Thursdays, no more loyalty centers), self-imposed monopolistic corporate regulation, not legal regulation which is altogether absent from the film, is suggested as the path to a better, friendlier OASIS with more offline person-to-person interaction — and, by extension, a better internet. For Spielberg, reinvigorating the culture of the 1980s proves that Hollywood artistry exists in a corporate structure, but for Warners, looking back at its own culture and contemplating a vertical merger with AT&T, the film proves that the vertically integrated conglomerate model produces not stultifying mass culture but diverse options for quality entertainment.

But ironically, in its frequent allusions to Warners’ productions, Ready Player One cannot help but reveal the gap between its celebration of the free and open distribution of content and the studios’ actual practice of covetously guarding their intellectual property. To paraphrase Henry Ford a bit, users of the OASIS can explore any IP that they want — so long as it belongs to Warners. Users can generate their own content, but perhaps the most notable example of user-generated content is Wade’s friend Aech’s massive recreation of the Iron Giant. Her creative imagination has been thoroughly colonized by Warners’ IP, which AT&T plans to release to its consumers in similarly customizable experiences. The OASIS is thus exactly what many reasonably fear AT&T envisions as the future of the internet: a putatively free internet that is dominated by Time Warner’s content.

While, to Spielberg, the Golden Egg may refer to the quality of the art produced under corporate supervision, to Time Warner and AT&T, a golden egg refers to the monetary value of the associated goose. In fact, AT&T has described its premium satellite and cable subscribers as precisely that: “a golden goose,” by which they mean a reliable source of revenue. While Wade aspires to reach the Golden Egg and to preserve the culture of the ’80s, AT&T and Time Warner are trying to save their own golden egg, preserving their traditional base of cable and satellite subscribers, whom they captured during the period and through the culture Wade adores, from the threat of cord-cutting and online streaming. We might then ascribe one final meaning to the Golden Egg, which is imagined not only as an Easter egg but also as a Holy Grail (Wade’s avatar name is Parzival): corporate millenarianism. The Egg stands for the messianic rebirth of the traditional media conglomerate of the 1980s, having vanquished its internet-based foes. Ready Player One imagines the closest an entertainment conglomerate has come since the Supreme Court broke up the classical Hollywood studios in 1948 to capturing both content and distribution, both medium and message. It’s pure imagination, but it may be coming soon to a reality near you.

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Palmer Rampell is a lecturer in Yale University’s English Department, where he is currently completing a book manuscript about the intersection of privacy law and genre fiction/film in the 20th century. His scholarship has appeared or is forthcoming in ELH, American Literature, and New England Quarterly.

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