Last Saturday (6.11) marked the 40th anniversary of Steven Spielberg‘s E.T., The Extra-Terrestrial. It opened exactly one week after Poltergeist (6.4), which was partly directed by the late Tobe Hooper but mostly directed (or certainly overseen) by Spielberg.

E.T. and Poltergeist each cost roughly $10.5 million to make. Both were hugely successful, but E.T. left a much bigger box-office footprint with a grand total to date of $792 million. Poltergeist wound up earning $121.7 million.

I was the managing editor of The Film Journal at the time, and I distinctly recall that the promotional build-up for Poltergeist (“the beast!”, ghosts seeping out from Native American burial grounds, little girl sucked into a television) was louder than the E.T. drumbeat.

When the first E.T. screening happened I sent a stringer (Mark Kane, who went on to become a hotshot L.A. attorney) to cover it rather than see it myself. When Kane returned to the office later that day he had this funny little grin on his face. He didn’t say “this movie is going to make box-office history” or “it brought tears to me eyes” or anything like that, but he was definitely charmed.

Bottom line: There wasn’t much advance hoopla for E.T. The pre-screening buzz was that it was a “little movie” — a film that was basically about kids and divorce and suburbia and so on. There were no mentions of a toy-sized, big-eyed alien living in the closet of a little boy’s bedroom, etc. E.T.‘s p.r. materials were very restrained and neutral-sounding.

And then it opened and within a week or two everyone was saying “holy shit…how many times have you seen it?…I have to take my kids.”

The E.T. vibe before it opened (i.e., when it was just screening for Manhattan journos) was very cool and contact-high. I was in love with it. I saw it three times before it opened. And then it opened and the unwashed masses poured into theatres and it was suddenly less of a cool thing.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to name other big hits that nobody saw coming…movies that no one expected anything stupendous from in terms of emotional content or box-office revenue but wound up surprising the handicappers.

Okay, I’ll name one — Ted Kotcheff‘s First Blood. Early buzz was flat, just another Stallone flick, a difficult production history, a re-shot ending, mixed reviews, etc. But it wound up earning a gross of either $125 or $156 million (serious money back in ’82) and of course launched a franchise.

None of the Rambo sequels have been as good as the original.