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Remind Me

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Thursday, June 28 at dusk in Atlanta's Piedmont Park for "Screen on the Green" 2007

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) is more than a movie – it is one of those rare cinematic occurrences that strikes at exactly the right time and place, revealing the cultural zeitgeist of the moment. The film sparked an immediate pop culture frenzy when it was released in 1982; it turned the precocious, young Drew Barrymore into a household name, led to a 65% increase in the sale of Reese's Pieces and had kids, and even adults, everywhere saying, "E.T. phone home." The movie grossed $700 million worldwide, making it the top-grossing movie of the 1980s and the 4th highest U.S. box office of all time. Variety called E.T. "the best Disney movie Walt Disney never made." And Rolling Stone raved that Steven Spielberg was "the most successful movie director in Hollywood, America, the Occident, the planet Earth, the solar system and the galaxy." But E.T. was never intended to be such a phenomenon.

After his success with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Spielberg had instead set out to make a smaller, more personal film. "E.T. was about the divorce of my parents, how I felt after my parents broke up," Spielberg admitted. "[It was] the first movie I ever made for myself." The idea for E.T began to form while the director was on location in Tunisia for Raiders. A lonely Spielberg started picturing something of an imaginary friend. "It was like when you were a kid and had grown out of dolls or teddy bears," he recalled. "You just wanted a little voice in your mind to talk to. I began concocting this imaginary creature, partially from the guys who stepped out of the Mother Ship for ninety seconds in Close Encounters [1977]." He shared the idea with Melissa Mathison, Harrison Ford's screenwriter girlfriend who had already penned two family films The Black Stallion (1979) and The Escape Artist (1982). Together Spielberg and Mathison fleshed out the story.

Mathison would receive sole screenwriting credit on E.T. even though there was a significant second influence on Spielberg's story. John Sayles had a script in development at Columbia called Night Skies. Spielberg had done some work on the project and was considering directing it. Sayles' story revolved around malevolent aliens who terrorize a farmhouse. The aliens could kill just by touching a victim with a long, bony finger. Night Skies also featured a friendly alien - "Buddy" - who forms a friendship with a child. And in the last scene, Buddy is marooned on earth, left behind by his people. Given the similarities between E.T.'s set up and Night Skies' ending, Spielberg offered Sayles and Columbia first refusal on his new benevolent alien angle. Sayles declined and did not pursue screen credit. The studio also passed on E.T., but they retained 5% of the profits – enough to make E.T., a film produced by Universal, Columbia's most profitable film of the year.

Spielberg was given a $10.5 million budget for E.T. -- not a huge amount considering Raiders estimated $20 million price tag. The E.T. puppet alone cost $1.5 million. It was designed by special effects wizard Carlo Rambaldi and made use of two control systems; the first allowed E.T.'s movements to be controlled by puppeteers and the second, an electronic system, created E.T.'s mannerisms, like wrinkling his nose. In all, E.T. was capable of 85 movements, had 35 facial expressions and stood three feet tall. There were three versions of the puppet with four interchangeable heads. In long shots, when E.T. was walking, little people in an E.T. suit took over the part.

Along with a smaller-than-usual Spielberg budget, the director took a chance with his normal production process, forgoing his need to storyboard every scene. For E.T. Spielberg mainly sketched just the effects shots. "I had the feeling the boards might force the child actors into stiff unnatural attitudes and I didn't want that," explained Spielberg. E.T. was shot over 61 days in the fall of 1981. Several exterior locations around Southern California were used, as well as interiors filmed at Culver City High School. The bulk of the film was shot at Laird International Studios in Culver City. Spielberg chose Laird to keep E.T. off the Universal lot. He was greatly concerned with secrecy during the production. All the cast and crew were required to sign confidentiality agreements. Even Spielberg's dog Willie was issued an ID badge while visiting.

E.T. grossed $11.8 million its opening weekend; Spielberg himself was said to be making half a million dollars a day during the first week of E.T.'s release. He was also guaranteed 10% of all licensed E.T. products (as well as product approval) on everything from pajamas to lunchboxes and alarm clocks to bubble gum. Universal spent $2 million filing suit against non-licensed merchandise. It was a small price to pay as E.T. set a new standard for movie merchandising. It took in an additional $1 billion in merchandise revenue. But home video profits were put on hold. Spielberg felt that E.T. should only be viewed on the big screen. The film was finally released on video in 1988. Again, in a brilliant bit of foresight, Spielberg was contractually guaranteed 50% of video profits.

With the film's success came the inevitable complaints and lawsuits. Melissa Mathison cited her screenplay's description of the alien as proof that she created E.T.'s likeness and the Writers' Guild agreed. Arbitration was settled in her favor, granting Mathison a piece of the merchandising profits. Several other writers made claims that their work had been plagiarized by E.T., but these suits were all thrown out. The allegation that probably concerned Spielberg the most was made by Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who asserted similarities (down to specific scenes) between E.T. and an unproduced screenplay of Ray's called The Alien which had been circulated in Hollywood. Eventually Ray was persuaded to withdraw the claim.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was nominated for nine Academy Awards, winning four: Best Score (John Williams), Best Visual Effects, Best Sound and Best Sound Effects Editing. E.T. lost out to Gandhi in the other five categories which were Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography and Editing.

A few final notes of interest about E.T.:
- In Sweden, Finland and Norway, children under 12 were banned from seeing the film because of the "portrayal of adults as the enemies of children."
- The week E.T. opened, Spielberg used some of his half-million dollar-a-day profits to buy the original Rosebud sled from Citizen Kane (1941) for $65,000 at auction at Sotheby's.
- Reese's Pieces will forever be associated with E.T. but the candy selected for the film was originally supposed to be M&M's. Allegedly, Mars declined to be involved, saying the subject matter was unsuitable and would frighten children.

Producer: Kathleen Kennedy, Steven Spielberg
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenplay: Melissa Mathison
Cinematography: Allen Daviau
Production Design: James D. Bissell
Music: John Williams
Film Editing: Carol Littleton
Cast: Henry Thomas (Elliott), Dee Wallace (Mary), Robert MacNaughton (Michael), Gertie (Drew Barrymore), Keys (Peter Coytote), K.C. Martel (Greg), Sean Frye (Steve), C. Thomas Howell (Tyler).

by Stephanie Thames