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Popular Culture Without E.T.

By Ryan Fleming

Nearly four decades after it was first released E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial retains a special place in the memories of not only film fans but also the wider public. The tale of a boy befriending a stranded alien struck a chord with families from its initial release, and within a year it had dethroned Star Wars as the highest grossing film of all time and it would hold that title for a decade before loosing it to Jurassic Park. Both E.T. and Jurassic Park were directed by Steven Spielberg, who had also directed the highest grossing film of all time that preceded Star Wars, Jaws. Today E.T. maintains a high average rating on every reputable film site and has even been selected for preservation by the United States National Film Registry.

What if it had never happened?

E.T. was actually stumbled into by accident, it had begun life as a horror film to follow up Close Encounters of the Third Kind called Watch the Skies and then later Night Skies. Spielberg and Melissa Mathison would take just one aspect of the original idea and turn it into the family friendly final film; elements of it would wind up in other productions, but Night Skies itself would never be made. If Spielberg were to go through with Night Skies then E.T. would never make it to our screens, nor would a lot of other films. No E.T. would mean a very different box-office during what was already a packed summer for science fiction films, but so impactful was the film that it would also mean changes in entertainment outside of cinema.

Night Skies came about when Steven Spielberg was asked by Columbia Pictures to do a sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Simultaneously unwilling to make a sequel and not wanting Columbia to make one without him as Universal had done with Jaws he instead gave them the idea for a science fiction horror film inspired by an alleged real-life close encounter from the 1950s. Spielberg hired John Sayles, fresh off Joe Dante’s Jaws-inspired Piranha, to write the script and Rick Baker, at the time working on John Landis’s An American Werewolf in London, to do the special effects. Production was meant to begin following Raiders of the Lost Ark with Spielberg producing and Tobe Hooper, of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre fame, to direct.

That all changed when screenwriter Melissa Mathison visited the Tunisian set of Raiders of the Lost Ark to see her then boyfriend and future husband Harrison Ford. Spielberg, already having his doubts about Night Skies, read Mathison the script as currently written. She was touched by one idea in it, that one of the malevolent alien creatures would befriend a young boy and help the family. After Raiders of the Lost Ark was completed Spielberg abandoned Night Skies completely, much to the chagrin of Rick Baker who had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on designs that would now go to waste, and begun work with Mathison on E.T. and Me– later known as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Columbia would eventually pass on the family friendly project and agree to sell it to Universal Studios, with Spielberg now directing.

Would Night Skies have been as successful as E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial ended up being? Almost certainly not, but this is not a slight as to the quality Night Skies could have achieved. Instead it is a reflection of two things: first of all, just how successful E.T. was by itself would be difficult for another film to achieve, it is not as simple as just another film filling the box office hole left by it; secondly, that as a horror film Night Skies would by definition have a smaller audience than E.T. where children of all ages could see it. Although it would definitely get a PG (Parental Guidance) rating rather than R (Restricted), this might make it more notorious than all-embracing. It also might bring forward the debate about the need for an intermediate rating between PG and R that wound up being PG-13, indicating that some material might be inappropriate for children under the age of thirteen.

This debate came about historically in 1984 in response to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Gremlins. The former was another directorial effort from Spielberg and the latter was produced by him and shared some lineage with the abandoned Night Skies. It was not alone in that sense. A week before E.T. was released another film with Spielberg’s name slapped over it was released, the horror film Poltergeist. After Night Skies petered out Spielberg was still keen to work with Tobe Hooper, so between them they hashed out Poltergeist. Which took the main thematic conflict of Night Skies– an American family terrorised by supernatural forces – and translated it to a haunted house instead of malevolent aliens. It remains fondly remembered, was nominated for three Academy Awards and was not only the most successful horror film of the year but also the eighth highest grossing film of the year.

Spielberg was able to parlay his success with E.T. into many more film productions, including Gremlins. The script from Chris Columbus was, by Spielberg’s admission, one of the most original scripts he had ever read. Not that this prevented him from insisting on some changes – the script originally called for the adorable little animal adopted by the family to evolve into the leader of the malicious monsters; Spielberg, no doubt seeing the marketing potential of the character, insisted audiences would expect the cute creature to be around for the duration. The result was an evolution of the Night Skies concept of one friendly member of an otherwise ill-natured species.

We would eventually get a film using the Night Skies concept, that of a family terrorised by an extra-terrestrial menace in the vein of the 1955 Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter. Spielberg would in no way be involved, instead New Line Cinema would bring us Critters in 1986 directed by Stephen Herek. It coincidentally starred Dee Wallace as the matriarch of the Kansas farm family terrorised by the title monsters, Wallace had gone to fame four years earlier playing the single mother of the main character in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Similarities with Gremlins were readily made, but those with Night Skie s are perhaps even more apparent. No direct influence has ever been cited, but despite being less successful than some of the other films mentioned in this article it is a fondly remembered cult classic amongst genre fans.

Night Skies could never hope to match the success of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, but more than that if it had been made there are three films we might never have gotten. Poltergeist would almost certainly never be made if Night Skies had gone ahead. Even if Spielberg had picked up Gremlins it may have wound up being a lot darker than the version we got if they did not want to repeat story beats from Night Skies. Critters might never have gotten made if it was seen as being too similar to a film that was released four years prior. Without the runaway success that was E.T. nor the eight highest grossing film of the year in the shape of Poltergeist might there have been other films in 1982 that would do better as a result of the gap left in their wake?

No E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial leaves a huge gap in the box office that summer, as mentioned there is not really any one film that can slot in to gobble up all those ticket sales. Poltergeist leaves another, smaller, hole. Which films would benefit? Night Skies would likely do at least as well as Poltergeist did, probably better if marketed right. By which I mean have Spielberg’s name slapped all over it, which Columbia would almost certainly do. Other family films that summer might do better, including Annie which is already the tenth highest grossing film of that year. It is unlikely Night Skies would wind up the highest grossing film of the year, that honour would probably fall to Tootsie which was released in December. It might not even be the highest grossing science fiction film of the year.

The Summer of 1982 was really an unparalleled summer for science fiction, fantasy and horror films. May saw the release of Conan the Barbarian and the US release of the Australian film Mad Max 2, the latter renamed The Road Warrior. June was particularly stacked, even without E.T. and Poltergeist you would still have Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Thing and Twilight Zone: The Movie. Tron would round out the summer being released in early July. Of this wonderful glut of genre films the only one other than E.T. and Poltergeist to crack the top ten highest grossing was The Wrath of Khan. The Wrath of Khan was the sixth highest grossing film of the year, without E.T. and with Night Skies proving too much for younger children it might do a bit better that summer. Tron might also do much better being a true family film, and a science fiction one to boot. Another $20million at the box office would see it edge into the top ten and may radically alter the direction Disney takes during the 1980s, but that is a subject for another article.

Two of the genre films released during that summer were originally released to divisive or outright hostile reviews and underperformance at the box office. Those were Blade Runner and The Thing, but in the years since they have both undergone a critical realisation to where they are both recognised as great films. Would either of them have been more successful in the absence of E.T.? Being released a fortnight after E.T. likely did hurt them, but both films being released on the same day probably equally contributed to underperforming.

As strange as it is to imagine now, Universal Studios were actually betting on The Thing to perform better than E.T. due to an impression at the studio that the latter would only appeal to children. The studio did have some faith in it, but the unexpected success of E.T. sent them into a panic (trailers during the family friendly romp were met with silence) and the marketing was changed to up the schlock factor. It did not work, and the film was lambasted by critics. Might Night Skies have acted as a gateway drug for the science fiction horror of The Thing? Its audience would still be limited to adults, but without a film that was fun for all the family it might have done better – pack the kids off to see Annie whilst the parents head into The Thing. With a bit more effort at marketing the film could have been successful but could never hope to reach the heights set by some of the other films, and critics would still be divided if they were not as outright hostile at the nihilistic film without the sheer optimism of E.T. standing in contrast. Historically the disappointment of The Thing caused Universal to replace Carpenter on their adaptation of Stephen King’s Firestarter, were The Thing a success this would never have happened and one of the most promising younger directors at the time might have been trusted with bigger productions.

Blade Runner was released on the 25th of June 1982 because executive producer Alan Ladd’s previous two successful science fiction films, Star Wars and Alien, were released on the 25th of May in 1977 and 1979, respectively, and he believed 25 to be his lucky number. It did do better than The Thing during that initial weekend and beyond, but competition from other science fiction films harmed it. Despite doing better at the box office the critical reception is likely to be the same since it had less to do with external factors and more to do with the conflicting vision of the film between the studio and directing Ridley Scott. Already by the end of that year historically there were those saying it had been misunderstood, more people seeing it is unlikely to change that.

What of Steven Spielberg in all of this? After all, he was only going to produce Night Skies and he was able to produce Poltergeist almost simultaneously with directing E.T. so presumably he would be directing another film in 1982. Yes, he was, and we know which film he was going to turn his attention – the western comedy Three Amigos. This would eventually be made by John Landis and released in 1986 but Spielberg had intended to turn his attention to the Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels and Randy Newman scripted film years earlier with Martin, Bill Murray and Robin Williams in the lead roles as three actors in the 1910s mistaken for real cowboys.

Three Amigos would have been more likely to see a Christmas rather than Summer release, so would have little effect on the Summer box office receipts but would be in direct competition with Tootsie. It might have offered real competition through being the more family friendly of the two films and having the biggest name in directing attached. However, two years earlier Spielberg had suffered a misstep with 1941 that did not live up to the commercial or critical success of his prior films – or indeed his subsequent films.

It is certain that Three Amigos would not be anywhere near as successful as E.T., which might be more significant than first appears .Your author had previously opined that without Star Wars there would be no Raiders of the Lost Ark and Spielberg would not gain the pre-eminence he did in 1980s Hollywood benefitting a lot of up and coming directors. E.T.was just as an important factor in this rise as Jaws and Raiders, perhaps the most important since it proved everyone that doubted it wrong (Columbia selling it and Universal thinking they would make more with The Thing) with two of the highest grossing films of all time under his belt the word was now undeniable – Steven Spielberg was money. For a clue as to how important E.T. was to his success and what he was able to accomplish as a producer just look at the logo of Amblin Entertainment, it is not a shark silhouette on the screen. Without E.T. Universal and Warner Bros. might not feel inclined to give him carte blanche on films and we might never have gotten the likes of Gremlins, Back to the Future or Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Younger directors like Don Bluth, Chris Columbus, Joe Dante, Barry Levinson, and Robert Zemeckis might not have been given a chance to prove themselves on a large-scale production as early as they did with the backing of Steven Spielberg.

Spielberg had influence beyond cinema screens. Universal Studios were perhaps more than any other studio taken with the former wunderkind and the relationship was reciprocated. Spielberg had worked as an intern at the studio during the 1960s and got his start on the small screen in productions for Universal Television. With E.T.S pielberg had given Universal their second box office record breaker in less than a decade, so Universal granted him a personal office on the lot and also granted facilities for Amblin Entertainment.

The relationship went beyond film production. Since 1915 Universal had supplemented their income by offering the public tours of the backlot and in the 1960s Universal Studios became a theme park with the Studio Tour as its cornerstone. Around the lot staged encounters were added to give the tourists a taste of movie magic, such as staged natural disasters and a near miss with Norman Bates outside the still standing sets of 1960s Psycho. In 1976 another encounter was added when Bruce, as the mechanical shark used on Jaws was named, was given a permanent home in a lagoon on the Universal Lot and his successors continue to leap at tourists to this day.

The relationship between Steven Spielberg and money firmly established, Universal wished him to take a consultant role on in their Universal Parks and Resorts subsidiary ahead of the building of their new Florida park. In the early 1990s their parks were awash with rides based on films Spielberg had either directed or produced –Jaws, E.T., Back to the Future, An American Tale, and Jurassic Park. Universal’s relationship with Spielberg also inspired Disney to get in on the act and secure George Lucas as their own creative consultant. For Disney Lucas would design the motion simulator ride Star Tours (based onStar Wars), the 3D film Captain EO (directed by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Michael Jackson), the stunt show Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular! and the Alien-inspired theatre show ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter. Without E.T. Spielberg might never be brought on as consultant for Universal theme parks nor Lucas for Disney, though hundreds of children would likely still be traumatised by Alien Encounter since it was Michael Eisner that wanted an Alien themed attraction at the Disney park.

Such tie-ins did not end with theme parks of course, long before E.T. became an amusement park attraction there had been those attempting to cash in and cash in quick. As mentioned, the resounding success of E.T. was unexpected, and though it might be possible to imagine nowadays the studio had not explored every available avenue of merchandising to make even more money. In 1982 Atari was riding high as the peak of the home video game console industry, and they wanted to make an adaptation of the most successful film that summer. Unfortunately, they rushed into releasing one for the Christmas 1982 season, giving developers only five and a half weeks to work on the game since negotiations for the rights only ended late in the Summer.

As the Atari 2600 was the most popular console of its generation and E.T. was the most successful film of that year, the game was expected to fly off the shelves. It did, but it flew back on to them just as quickly as people began playing the game. No one liked the game and to this day it remains widely considered one of the worst video games in history and is cited as a contributing factor in a video game industry crash the next year. Atari were left with hundreds upon hundreds of units of a video game no one wanted to buy and suffered a loss of hundreds of millions. The unsold copies would end up buried in a landfill in Alamogordo, New Mexico and Atari itself would be split up and sold in 1984.

The bust of the US video game market left a gap into which Japanese companies like Nintendo and Sega could step. They would dominate the US home console scene together for the remainder of the decade and for the first half of the 1990s, would they have gotten a global foothold if it were not for the failure of the E.T. game by Atari? There were certainly other factors at play like a flood of poor-quality consoles and games, but E.T. was the largest failure. It is possible that without the crash Atari might be able to survive and offer some home-grown competition to the Japanese consoles when the market does pick up again.

E.T.was not the first film to receive a massive merchandising blitz, but it did inadvertently lead to some changes in theme parks and video games that came as a result of wanting to cash in on its popularity. Would Universal Parks or Atari have been as desperate to have a piece of the action of Night Skies or The Three Amigos? Probably not.

E.T.had a profound impact on popular culture especially in film but also across other mediums. It solidified the career of its director, allowing him to get a lot of other projects for other talent off the ground. It changed the box office trajectory of its year of release perhaps dooming some other films to a lack of financial success. It even managed to crash an entire industry far quicker than might have happened. All this because Steven Spielberg shared the script for a horror film with a screenwriter who was touched by one of the ideas therein.


Ryan Fleming is the author of Reid in Braid, published by SLP


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