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‘E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial’ Still Doesn’t Get the Credit It Deserves

This is the 40th anniversary of the Steven Spielberg classic that sold one ticket for every two people in North America. "Endgame" doesn't even come close.

“E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”

Today, June 11, is the 40th anniversary of the opening of Steven Spielberg’s “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” which is still bigger than “Avatar,” “The Force Awakens,” and “Avengers: Endgame.” Based on adjusted ticket prices, it stands at $1.3 billion and #4 of all time.

That number will grow with its first-ever IMAX release August 12. (Blame screen commitments to summertime blockbusters for the delay.)  Its initial run in 1982 run sold about 120 million domestic tickets, or about one ticket for every two people with a smaller population. (We have about 100 million more people now.) That means about one ticket sold for every two people (of any age).

A similar performance at current population levels would be 170 million tickets. With ticket prices now averaging $10 or more, that’s about $1.7 billion — double “Endgame” and perhaps three times as many as “Top Gun: Maverick.”

It showed a box-office dominance that’s rarely been matched, although “Titanic” came close. “E.T.” was #1 for a total of 16 weeks between June and December, and held on to the #1 or #2 slots all the way to October. Months later, it was still in the top 10 — the video release wouldn’t arrive until 1988.

No one expected this performance. Spielberg’s track record included “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (combined domestic adjusted gross, $2.5 billion), but suspicions dogged “E.T.” Columbia Pictures developed the project only to put it in turnaround, doubting its marketability. Advance publicity suggested it was a smaller-scale, personal film for Spielberg.

Spielberg Film director Steven Spielberg is seen at the 35th Cannes International Film Festival, . The American director is here for the presentation of "E.T., The ExtraterrestrialCannes Spielberg 1982, Cannes, France

Steven Spielberg at the 35th Cannes International Film Festival

Jean-Jacques Levy/AP/REX/Shutterstock

It premiered at Cannes on closing night to a rapturous response. The next night, with two weeks before release, Universal held its first industry screenings and sneak previews. I attended one of those screenings, as I did for “Jaws” and “Star Wars,” and can attest that it exceeded any audience response in my experience before or after.

Then, the reviews. With a 91 Metacritic score, it ranks second (by only three points) behind “Schindler’s List” as Spielberg’s best-reviewed film.

“E.T.” opened in 1,103 theaters, mostly on one screen each. While “Top Gun: Maverick” deserved its accolades for dropping only 29 percent in its second weekend. “E.T.” went up seven percent in week two and another nine percent in week 3; by then there was a slight uptick in theaters and exhibitors added show times where possible.

Now, for a wildly subjective question: Given its extraordinary performance, does “E.T” feel as iconic as, say, the 1986 “Top Gun”? (Its adjusted gross was about one third of “E.T.”) There’s reasons it might not: Its appeal to children might make it seem less “serious” or edgy. It’s one of so many hit films in Spielberg’s nearly 50-year career. Although its John Williams theme is iconic, there’s no pop soundtrack to buttress its memory.

Also, there was no sequel. Among the top 10 films of the ’80s, the only other standalone was “Tootsie” at #10.

It was nominated for, but did not win, the Oscar for best picture. “E.T.” won four of its nine noms, all in crafts categories; Columbia’s Gandhi” won best picture. That might have dimmed the film’s memory, particularly compared to “Titanic.”  “E.T.” was the first Spielberg film to be nominated for Picture, Director, and Writing. Here, timing did not work in its favor: “Gandhi” came out at the end of the year and tied its wide commercial run to the Oscar campaign. It also was the kind of well-crafted “serious” film that the Academy often prefers.

No one needs to pity “E.T.” It remains beloved. But on its 40th anniversary, its achievements unmatched since deserve attention.

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