Let me take you back to June 11-17, 1982. During that week, Larry Holmes knocked out Gerry Cooney to win the heavyweight title, 750,000 attended anti-nuclear demonstrations in Central Park, the king of Saudi-Arabia died at the age of 69, the Falkland Islands conflict between the U.K. and Argentina ended, guitarist for the Pretenders James Honeyman-Scott died of an overdose, and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial was the #1 movie in America.
Of course, on that last point, you could say that for 17 weeks in 1982. Steven Spielberg’s landmark film was far and away the most successful film of its year, one of the most successful films of all time. In its opening week, though, it held off previous #1s Rocky III and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, as well Spielberg produced Poltergeist. Over its first 12 consecutive week run at #1 it held off a number of iconic 80s films: Grease 2, Blade Runner, The Thing, Tron, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and Friday the 13th Part III. Unfortunately, thanks to E.T., I won’t be covering any of those films in this series.
Overall, E.T. grossed nearly $360M on its original release with an extra $75M added on with multiple re-releases, translating to an astonishing $1.3B in current dollars when an inflation adjustment is enacted. This places it as the 4th highest domestic grossing film of all time, behind only Gone with the Wind [$1.8B], Star Wars [$1.6B] and barely trailing The Sound of Music [$1.3B]. Of the ten films to surpass $1B after inflation, it is the only film to have been released in the 1980s -- 2 from the 1930s, 1 from the 1950s, 2 from the 1960s, 3 from the 1970s, and Titanic rounding it out.
You don’t have to adjust for inflation to fudge the numbers of E.T.’s box office success. The film lands at #16 on the all-time domestic chart, only the second film released before 1997. For both domestic and worldwide grosses, E.T. is the highest charter of the 1980s. In fact, it is the only film from the 1980s to land in the top 150 films all time in worldwide gross.
This particular point is interesting given the birth of the summer blockbuster unofficially happening in the late 1970s, often attributed to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Now, older films obviously are at a disadvantage when not adjusting for inflation -- and though theater-going numbers have steadily been decreasing in recent years, there have been massive increases in the number of theater screens today compared to the early 1980s. E.T. peaked on about 1,700 screens, about 2,000 fewer than a typical wide release today.
The advantage a film like E.T. had, however, was longevity and rewatchability. E.T. lived in theaters for a full year -- released on June 11, 1982 on 1,100 screens, it saw its last official week of release end on June 9, 1983 on about 500 screens. Likewise, we often hear stories of people going to see a movie multiple times during its theatrical run in the old days. With limited entertainment possibilities, why not go see a great movie for a third, fourth, or fifth time at the local theater? The thought that it would be coming out on-demand in 3 months or end up on a streaming service in 6 wouldn’t have existed. If you wanted to see E.T., you had only one option.
Oh, and by the way, E.T. is an amazing film. It has a wide family appeal. It is funny, thrilling, unique, full of fantasy, truly iconic. That certainly helps its box office success.