Why studio execs didn't like E.T. + 12 more sci-fi classics

Even a future classic can look like a guaranteed flop in the eyes of a studio executive.

Running a major movie studio is a job full of calculated risk. People come to you with ideas, and you evaluate those ideas and see if they're worth spending money on, and if so, how much money. We get really cynical about Hollywood, but the reality is that these people are running businesses. They need to turn a profit, and if they think Pirates of the Carribean 12 is the way to do it, they turn on the green light. 

But for every colossal blockbuster a studio executive backs, there's likely at least one other film they should have backed. Every studio has a sad story involving a risky project they turned down, only to watch that project go to another studio and make millions and often become a landmark piece of American cinema. So, in celebration of our own cinematic hindsight, here are 13 pieces of sci-fi greatness that some executive, at some point, wanted no part of.

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    Back to the FutureDirector Rob Zemeckis and his co-writer Bob Gale first started shopping their time travel adventure around to studios four years before they got to make it. First they went to Columbia Pictures, who turned it down because executives thought the film wasn't sexy enough. Then they went to Disney, who declared that the film was too racy (because of the whole "mother unknowingly falls for her future son" thing). Finally, after Zemeckis hit big with Romancing the Stone, Universal Pictures picked up the flick, and wound up with a very profitable franchise.

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    The Amazing Spider-ManIt's still hard to tell how true this one is, but in the months leading up to the Spidey reboot's release, rumors began circulating that executives at Sony Pictures "hated" the flick, and as a result hired Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (FringeStar Trek, etc.) to handle scripting duties for the second installment. It could just be a rumor, but even if they did hate the film, they definitely loved the three quarters of a billion dollars in box office returns.

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    The Lord of the Rings: Back in the mid-90s, Peter Jackson set out to adapt The Lord of the Rings and managed to secure studio support from Harvey Weinstein and Miramax Pictures. The original plan was to condense the three books into two films, but as Jackson and his team continued to develop the project, Miramax execs grew concerned about increasing costs, and concocted a plan to again condense the story into a single two-hour movie. Jackson rushed to find a new studio, and connected with New Line Cinema, who agreed to three films. The result is cinema history.

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    Tron: Writer/director Steven Lisberger's plan to make a daring (at the time) feature film that blended live action and computer animation was too risky for several studios. Warner Bros., MGM and Columbia all turned the film down. Lisberger then turned to Disney. The studio was hesitant, but agreed to fund the production of a test reel. The early footage was enough to convince executives to back the film.

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    Being John Malkovich: Writer Charlie Kaufman's spec script for Being John Malkovich was turned down by numerous executives before he finally got independent financing for it. When it came time to get major studio support, the film got more rejections, including one from New Line Cinema. The story goes that New Line chariman Robert Shaye turned the project down and remarked "Why the f#%@ can't it be Being Tom Cruise?" The film got made anyway, and found distribution through USA Films.

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    Blade RunnerIt's a classic now, but there were plenty of people in 1982 who weren't too sure about Blade Runner, including studio executives. After viewing a cut of the film months before its release, three executives from co-producer Tandem Productions had a laundry list of complaints. They called the voice-over "terrible," they demanded the film be re-cut (again) and they declared it gets "duller every time we see it."

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    Raiders of the Lost ArkThough it seems like a Spielberg/Lucas team-up in the early '80s would be something studios would jump at, nearly everyone turned down Raiders when the duo shopped it around to major studios. Why? Well, Spielberg had already made a not-super-successful World War II-set movie, 1941, in 1979, and the prospect of returning to the period made some execs nervous. As with Star Wars, the film was also seen as too expensive to risk producing. Spielberg and Lucas finally got Paramount Pictures to give the flick a relatively low $18 million budget. Spielberg shot the film with an eye toward keeping cost down (lots of storyboarding and few takes), and the result is a landmark movie that made Paramount lots of money.

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    Pirates of the CaribbeanWalt Disney Pictures didn't necessarily have a problem with this film as a whole, but they did have a problem with the character who wound up stealing every scene. According to Johnny Depp, Disney execs "couldn't stand" his Captain Jack Sparrow. Luckily for them, audiences could. Depp got his best-known role, an Oscar nod, and hundreds of millions of dollars in sequel payouts, and Disney got one of its most profitable franchises ever.

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    Star WarsGeorge Lucas' original concept for Star Wars is famously different from what finally wound up on screen, and that original concept also cost him some studio love. Both United Artists and Universal passed on the ambitious sci-fi idea, worried it would be too expensive. Finally, Lucas got 20th Century Fox to take an interest, and he spent time there honing the film into what would eventually become one of the most important sci-fi movies ever made.

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    A Nightmare on Elm StreetThe first major studio that almost picked up Wes Craven's future horror classic was, believe it or not, Disney. But of course, execs there wanted the film's scares toned down, so they passed. Then Paramount Pictures seemed interested, but they eventually decided Nightmare was too similar to their production Dreamscape. Finally Craven set the film up at fledgling studio New Line, which was thereafter known in some Hollywood circles as "The House That Freddy Built." 

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    BrazilTerry Gilliam's dystopian masterpiece was released on time and without issue internationally, by 20th Century Fox, but the domestic release was the stuff of legendary Hollywood battles. Universal Pictures had U.S. distribution rights, and studio head Sid Sheinberg was very unhappy with Gilliam's 142-minute cut of the film. Sheinberg recut Brazil, slashing the runtime almost in half and changing the ending. This infuriated Gilliam, and the two parties remained locked in disagreement for nearly a year, while the film was still unreleased domestically. Finally Gilliam took action, taking out a full page ad in Variety to publicly ask when Sheinberg would release the film, and staging covert screenings of his cut for critics without the studio's permission. Gilliam's scheme earned the film the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Best Picture Award for 1985, before it had even been released. Sheinberg relented, and he and Gilliam compromised on a 132-minute new cut of the film that finally hit American theaters in late 1985.

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    E.T.: The Extra TerrestrialAfter Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Columbia Pictures was eager to make another alien movie with Steven Spielberg. When he presented them with E.T., though, the studio had second thoughts. They put Spielberg's script through market research and found it had "limited commercial potential," so they passed. Spielberg took his script to Universal instead, and E.T. became one of the top grossing movies ever at the time.

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    Groundhog DayOne of the most memorable things about Harold Ramis' time loop comedy is the fact that we never find out why Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is being forced to live the same day over and over again, and originally this didn't sit well with executives at Columbia Pictures. They demanded a new scene be written in which the time loop would be explained as a gypsy curse put on Phil by a former lover. Ramis refused to ever shoot the resulting script pages, and the film was spared a cheap explanation.

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