US loves E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial: Friendship, childlike innocence feed desire for summer’s addiction
Each hot, sunny day, 12-year-olds Felipe Zea, Tamer Ayasli and Jeffrey Russo hustle passersby on a Manhattan sidewalk to support their summer addiction.
Their game is cold lemonade for cash. Their habit is a slimy creature with bulging eyes, webbed feet and an inhuman desire to phone home.
His name, as you probably know, unless you’ve been cut off from civilization a while, is “E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial.” And with his oversized, glowing heart, he’s been capturing the fancy of moviegoers since he touched down in earthbound theaters six weeks ago.
As soon as Felipe, Tamer and Jeffrey have filled their pockets with the day’s lemonade profits, they head up the block to spend it on tickets to E.T.; they’ve seen it a combined total of 19 times.
E.T.’s own summertime business is bringing in about $3 million a day, not including sales of buttons, T-shirts and other assorted E.T. paraphernalia.
Why is E.T. so popular?
A MENNINGER Foundation psychiatrist in Topeka, Kansas, cites the timeless appeal of childhood innocence. A UFO expert in Clarksburg, West Virginia, says people like the idea of friendly aliens. The young lemonade peddlers call it a movie about love.
E.T. is the story of a lovable otherworldly botanist accidentally left behind by his fellow aliens during a nature walk on earth. Chronically homesick and pursued by adults who see his value in cold, scientific terms, E.T. follows a candy trail to the closet of Elliott Taylor, who offers him refuge and friendship.
There, in young Elliott’s suburban California home, E.T. goes trick-or-treating, gets soused on beer, learns to speak by watching Sesame Street, and devises a plan to “phone home” and be rescued after seeing a telephone commercial and a Buck Rogers comic strip.
Since the movie’s release, critics have been dusting off their supply of shiny phrases, comparing the film to such classics as “Peter Pan” and “The Wizard of Oz,” and delving into the childhood of director Steven Spielberg for clues to the source of all this summertime magic.
“The best Disney film Disney never made,” said Variety. “One of the funniest, sweetest love stories in movie history,” exulted The Washington Post. “An all-around great movie,” said lemonade salesman Jeffrey, after seeing it for the fourth time.
In E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial, Kids triumph
“ONE REASON the movie works so well is that children triumph over adults,” says Menninger Foundation psychiatrist Glen Gabbard, who studies movies and their magic.
“The idea that children are somehow superior to adults because they have not yet been corrupted by the value system of the adult world is a really popular theme.”
Gray Barker, 56, director of the Space and Unexplained Celestial Events Research Society, says the alien “is quite benign and lovable.”
“He’s good for those of us who are interested in these things because it gives people a better Opinion of what we may be exploring, where before we might have looked like crackpots.”
Says Jeffrey: “Adults didn’t understand ET the way Elliott did. To Elliott, E.T. meant friendship and love. Love was the theme of the movie.”
Love and money and candy
And money has been the outcome.
E.T. has taken in more than $130 million, and now cruises along at more than $3 million a day as the movie climbs Hollywood’s list of all-time money-makers, shattering records as it goes.
Also cashing in on E.T.’s success is Hershey Foods Corp., whose Reese’s Pieces lured E.T. from the forest to Elliott’s bedroom. Sales of the candy in June were up 70 percent over May.
Millions made from E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial dolls, toys
THE E.T. STUFFED doll will hit the shelves any day, and retailers already have placed $16 million worth of orders with Kamar International, the toymaker licensed to create it. T-shirts and buttons are on sale in theater lobbies; E.T. bed sheets won’t be far behind.
Perhaps an even surer sign of a movie phenomenon are the new catch-phrases E.T. has ushered in, as the movie transcends the theater and finds its way into everyday life.
For example, in one of many memorable scenes, Elliott returns home from school to find that E.T. has taught himself to talk — and has very definite ideas about what he wants to say.
Like “The Force be with you” from “Star Wars,” “E.T. phone home” has jumped off the T-shirts and into real life.
In a Manhattan office building, an executive returned to her desk to find a strange message on her while-you-were-out pad: “E.T. Phone home.” Standing in a subway token line across town, two small boys loudly chanted the refrain.
Ugliness, beauty and millions
IT COST $1 million to create the odd mixture of ugliness and beauty that is ET, the visitor from outer space. That’s one-tenth the entire cost of the movie. But director Speilberg thinks the money was well spent.
“He’s fat and he’s not pretty,” Spielberg says. “The story is the beauty of his character.”
When Hershey’s Vice President Jack Dowd was sent off to Hollywood to make sure Reese’s Pieces were not keeping company with the wrong sort of alien, he returned smitten.
“I thought he (E.T.) was a strange-looking creature. But I told all the executives here, ‘You’re gonna love him.”‘
Like Elliott Taylor. Spielberg was a child of suburbia. He got his first movie camera when he was 12. “Walt Disney was my parental conscience, and my step-parent was the TV set,” he told Time magazine.
He’s just 34, but hardly a newcomer — his previous blockbusters include “Close Encounters” and “Jaws,” and this summer he has scored a hat-trick with “E.T.,” “Poltergeist” and a re-release of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Columbia passed on E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial
E.T. was to have been a Columbia Pictures production, but the studio let it go. Until early May, Universal Studios, the lucky recipient, thought it might have a bomb on its hands, with only about 500 theaters agreeing to show it.
Then, a screening in Houston alerted the studio to the movie’s potential. It opened in 1,100 movie houses — and recovered its $10 million cost three days later.
Part of the reason is kids like Felipe, Tanner and Jeffrey, who live a half-block from one of the three Manhattan theaters where E.T. is now playing. But they still have a long way to go before E.T. surpasses “The Empire Strikes Back.” They saw that one 50 times.