Opens to Great Success

Steven Spielberg became Hollywood’s most sought-after director as a result of the success of his science-fiction childhood fantasy E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the most lucrative motion picture of the decade.

Summary of Event

Before 1982, director Steven Spielberg was known mainly for two films, Jaws (1975), Jaws (film) which made more than $100 million in its initial release and set a record as the highest-grossing film to date, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (film) which became a cult classic and established Spielberg’s credentials in science fiction. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Raiders of the Lost Ark (film) which spoofed the conventions of the serial thriller, also gave evidence of Spielberg’s ability to make action-adventure pictures that would appeal to mass audiences, but it was E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, which was released across the United States on June 11, 1982, that made Spielberg Hollywood’s most sought-after directing talent. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (film)[E.T. the Extraterrestrial]
Motion pictures;E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial[E.T. the Extraterrestrial]
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Steven Spielberg[Spielberg]
[kw]E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial Opens to Great Success (June 11, 1982)
[]E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (film)[E.T.: The Extraterrestrial]
[]Motion pictures;E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial[E.T.: The Extraterrestrial]
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Steven Spielberg[Spielberg]
[g]North America;June 11, 1982: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial Opens to Great Success[04900]
[g]United States;June 11, 1982: E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial Opens to Great Success[04900]
[c]Motion pictures and video;June 11, 1982: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial Opens to Great Success[04900]
Spielberg, Steven
Mathison, Melissa
Kennedy, Kathleen

Spielberg originally intended to make a sequel to Close Encounters, which had earned him his first Academy Award nomination for Best Director. Although E.T. turned out to be more than simply a sequel to the earlier picture, Close Encounters and E.T. have much in common, combining what Charles Derry has described as the typical components of Spielberg’s work: “An Everyman protagonist has his conception of the world enlarged (often traumatically) as he comes face-to-face with some extraordinary and generally non-human antagonist who is often hidden from the rest of the world.”

Spielberg first completed a story treatment titled “Night Skies” that he assigned to screenwriter John Sayles Sayles, John for further development in 1979. The story concerned an alien visitation to an isolated farmhouse, but the aliens as Sayles imagined them were hostile and dangerous. Production problems ensued, and Columbia Pictures eventually refused to produce the film because of the projected costs. Spielberg continued to rethink the idea.

In contrast to the Sayles treatment, with its group of hostile aliens, Spielberg eventually took an approach that shifted the film’s tone from terror to sentiment and that made E.T. a uniquely gentle monster film about a friendly alien stranded on an unfamiliar world. This was the conceptual stroke of genius that enabled Spielberg to create one of the best-loved pictures of all time. He had been moving toward fantasy with Close Encounters (which was also remarkable for its friendly aliens) and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but E.T. was to put him in a league with Walt Disney Disney, Walt at a time when the Disney studio seemed to have lost touch with the tradition it had created.

Spielberg turned the story idea, now called “A Boy’s Life,” over to Melissa Mathison, who had written the screenplay for The Black Stallion (1979); by that time, Spielberg had shaped the idea into an encounter between children and a friendly, childlike alien stranded on Earth. Kathleen Kennedy, who became Spielberg’s coproducer on the project, suggested that Mathison write the screenplay. Meanwhile, Universal Studios, which had backed Jaws, accepted the concept.

“I really wanted this movie to be about a world, a universe of children,” Spielberg told his biographer Tony Crawley. “I wanted to become a child to make E.T. not an adult speaking to children through adults.” Given this strategy, Spielberg was fortunate to find the right cast for the picture. Ten-year-old Henry Thomas, Thomas, Henry who played Elliott, the central character, had made only one previous film, Raggedy Man (1981). For Elliott’s kid sister Gertie, Spielberg found six-year-old Drew Barrymore, Barrymore, Drew the daughter of John Drew Barrymore and actress Ildiko Jaid. Sixteen-year-old Robert MacNaughton, MacNaughton, Robert who played Elliott’s older brother, Michael, was the most experienced of the child actors, having worked for four years in live theater. Dee Wallace Wallace, Dee played Mary, Elliott’s mother, and Peter Coyote Coyote, Peter played the scientific investigator, a relatively sinister presence referred to in the credits only as “Keys.”

Spielberg got composer John Williams, Williams, John with whom he had worked on both Jaws and Close Encounters, to provide the music, and Williams’s score for the film won both an Oscar and a Grammy Award. Academy Awards;Best Score Perhaps the most important artist in this creative collaboration was the Italian sculptor Carlo Rambaldi, Rambaldi, Carlo who had earlier worked with Spielberg on Close Encounters. Rambaldi had also created the gigantic ape for director John Guillermin’s 1976 remake of King Kong, and he helped to give Spielberg’s new picture its most distinctive touch. The appearance of the extraterrestrial was kept secret until the film’s release, and no pictures of the creature were included in the press kits that were sent out to publicize the film.

Rambaldi worked with production designer James D. Bissell Bissell, James D. and cinematographer Allen Daviau, Daviau, Allen whose links with Spielberg went back to Spielberg’s short feature Amblin’ (1968). Rounding out the creative team were Carol Littleton, Littleton, Carol the film editor; Dennis Muren, Muren, Dennis the visual-effects supervisor; and Frank Marshall, Marshall, Frank the production supervisor. The film was shot at Laird International Studios in Culver City, California, and other locations in the Los Angeles area. Principal photography began on September 8, 1981, and the shooting was completed sixty-one days later.


Before 1982, Spielberg had certainly established his credentials with Jaws, the action-adventure of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the gentle metaphysics of Close Encounters. He had already become a player and deal maker in the industry. After E.T., however, he became the most important director in Hollywood and a major celebrity in his own right. He had demonstrated that he was a master of sentiment and, having made the most successful children’s picture in decades, he came to be regarded as a sort of latter-day Disney. Tony Crawley and others who have studied Spielberg’s career have likened E.T. to Peter Pan, and Spielberg obviously was drawn to the Peter Pan story. In 1985, Spielberg told Time magazine, “I have always felt like Peter Pan. It has been very hard for me to grow up.” In 1992, he released Hook, his updating of the Peter Pan myth.

When E.T. played at the Cannes Film Festival on May 26, 1982, coproducer Kathleen Kennedy told the press corps there that the film had been made for $10.5 million (although in 1985 Time critic Richard Corliss estimated the cost at $19 million). E.T. went on to become an unqualified success in the United States, taking the country by storm. It set box-office records and earned Universal Studios an impressive $359,687,000 during its first run, when it was seen by an estimated 200 million people worldwide.

E.T. was nominated for nine Academy Awards, of which it won four (in addition to Best Score, it won Oscars for Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Visual Effects, and Best Sound), and it won the Golden Globe Award Golden Globe Awards for Best Motion Picture. The Los Angeles Film Critics named it the best film of the year and named Spielberg the year’s best director. The secretary-general of the United Nations presented Spielberg with a special award, and the Writers Guild gave Melissa Mathison an award for her screenplay. E.T. was rereleased by Universal Pictures in 1985.

The film was a critical success as well as a popular one and was hailed by many critics and reviewers as a masterpiece. E.T. was described variously as a “suburban psychodrama” and as a religious allegory. Critics responded to Spielberg’s fable as a Christian allegory involving a ritual death, a resurrection, and an ascent into the heavens. Reviewing the film for Commonweal, Tom O’Brien called Spielberg a “suburban animist with a tinge of Manicheanism” and quoted Carl Jung on “the UFO as religious symbol.” Reviewers were generally enchanted by the picture and willing to take it seriously.

The film excelled in creating sympathy for an absurd, childlike alien visitor described by studio publicity as “afraid, totally alone, and three million light years from home.” The film’s tag line, “E.T. phone home,” immediately entered the vernacular of American popular culture.

E.T. made Spielberg the czar of the entertainment industry. Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall, his production collaborators on the E.T. project, joined Spielberg to form Amblin Entertainment, Amblin Entertainment which later funded Robert Zemeckis’s Zemeckis, Robert
Back to the Future series. By 1992, Zemeckis, whose films grossed more than $1 billion in North America, had eclipsed even Spielberg as a top moneymaking director.

Partly, perhaps, to avoid being stereotyped as a director of fantasy films, Spielberg took on two “serious” projects after E.T., adapting to cinema Alice Walker’s 1982 novel The Color Purple (1985) Color Purple, The (film) and J. G. Ballard’s 1984 novel Empire of the Sun (1987). Empire of the Sun (film)
Empire of the Sun was named the best film of 1987 by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. Also in 1987, Spielberg received the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in part perhaps because the academy had snubbed The Color Purple but also in recognition of Spielberg’s immense popular success with E.T., Jaws, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Spielberg’s success continued in 1993 with two very different blockbusters, Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List, for which he received the Academy Award for Best Director. In 1998, his Saving Private Ryan proved to be another critical and box-office success. Spielberg continued to produce popular films and made-for-television productions with mature social themes into the twenty-first century. []E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (film)[E.T.: The Extraterrestrial]
[]Motion pictures;E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial[E.T.: The Extraterrestrial]
Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Steven Spielberg[Spielberg]

Further Reading

  • Corliss, Richard, et al. “I Dream for a Living.” Time, July 15, 1985, 54-63. Cover story on the “magician of the movies” traces the career of Spielberg, “the world’s most successful filmmaker.” Explains why, after making E.T., Spielberg turned to The Color Purple, which he called the “biggest challenge” of his career.
  • Crawley, Tony. The Steven Spielberg Story. London: Zomba Books, 1983. Excellent, lively, readable, and richly anecdotal survey of Spielberg’s life and career through the production and popular success of E.T. One of the most complete treatments of Spielberg’s early career available, by an author who had direct access to his subject and the other talents with whom Spielberg was associated. One of the best sources for information on E.T.
  • Derry, Charles. “Steven Spielberg.” In Directors. Vol. 2 in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmaking, edited by Nicholas Thomas. 2d ed. Chicago: St. James Press, 1991. Describes E.T. as a retelling of the Christ story. A perceptive digest and analysis of Spielberg’s work.
  • Friedman, Lester D. Citizen Spielberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006. Scholarly examination of Spielberg’s films, organized by genre. Discusses E.T. in the opening chapter. Includes filmography and index.
  • Friedman, Lester D., and Brent Notbohm, eds. Steven Spielberg: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2000. Collection of interviews Spielberg has given over the course of his career shows the wide range of the director’s work and provides insights into his views on filmmaking and life. Includes chronology, filmography, and index.
  • Mott, Donald R., and Cheryl McAllister Saunders. Steven Spielberg. Boston: Twayne, 1986. First book on Spielberg published in the United States is comprehensive but owes a great deal to Crawley’s work, from which it borrows liberally. Follows Spielberg’s fortunes as director and producer through 1985. Well researched.
  • Sheehan, Henry. “The PANning of Steven Spielberg.” Film Comment 28, no. 3 (May/June, 1992): 54-60. Presents a critical reassessment of the “single most powerful and influential filmmaker in Hollywood,” who is also criticized as being “artistically marginal.” Describes the E.T. creature as a “Pan figure reduced to an all-but-mute, walking nub” and argues that Spielberg exploits “every melancholy notion that drifts across Elliott’s psyche notably loneliness and the feeling of being abandoned and pumps it up.” Surveys Spielberg’s whole career to put Hook into perspective.
  • Spielberg, Steven. “Dialogue on Film.” American Film 13 (June, 1988): 12-16. Spielberg’s own commentary on his career is informative. He claims that although he made Close Encounters and Raiders of the Lost Ark “to be popular,” that was not the reason he made E.T. or The Color Purple.

Jaws Prompts a Wave of Special-Effects Films

Star Wars Trilogy Redefines Special Effects

Release of Blade Runner Heralds a Science-Fiction Classic

Schindler’s List Begins Reaping Accolades