The box-office numbers are in, and for once the advance word--"the buzz"--was on the money.
In its first five days, "Aliens" took in a healthy $13.4 million at 1,437 theaters. Seven years after Ridley Scott's space- noir classic "Alien" first arrived, "Aliens" looks like the runaway hit of the summer and may even surpass "Top Gun" when all the counting is done.
But "Aliens" almost didn't make it to the screen.
In an era when it seems as if half the current releases are sequels feeding off yesterday's fare, "Aliens" almost crashed and burned. At one point, 20th Century Fox, the studio releasing the film, nearly sold the rights to the sequel to the producers of "Rambo." During pre-production of "Aliens," director James Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd (Cameron's wife) quit over a long-running budget feud and their insistence on keeping Sigourney Weaver as the star.
Today, the lines for "Aliens" snake around the block even for weekday mid-afternoon screenings. The line to take credit for making "Aliens" is only slightly shorter. If movie-making is a collaborative art, the story behind the making of "Aliens" offers classic evidence that the number of contributors increases exponentially with the success of a film.
What follows is a kind of captain's log of the birth, near-death and ultimate triumph of a film that in hindsight looks like a project that couldn't miss. Clearly, there were those who thought just the opposite--that "Alien" (which has taken in more than $100 million in worldwide ticket sales to date) was some kind of cinematic freak and that audiences had seen enough of the slimy parasitic killer. Those naysayers are suddenly hard to find.
Spring, 1983: Fox put the sequel into development after settling a protracted lawsuit brought by "Alien" producers David Giler, Gordon Carroll and Walter Hill over the disbursement of profits. The deal did not require the studio to release the film, just to put the project into development (paying a creative team to come up with a concept for the movie). While then-studio President Joe Wizan now says he endorsed the idea, several insiders say others were cool to it. "Norman Levy (then vice chairman at the studio) wouldn't even hear about it," Giler said. "He thought it would be a disaster."
Levy, now a marketing consultant, denied he was against making "Aliens." "I don't recall ever saying that. It was a movie I wanted to make," he said. "I was concerned about the cost and whether or not we were in a posture to take on a big-budget film like that. It was a question of economics." ("Aliens" was eventually made for about $18.5 million, before expenses for prints and advertising.)
But Giler insisted that Levy was strongly opposed. "I was introduced to John Davis at a bar one night, and I asked him, 'When is your dad (Marvin Davis, owner of the studio at the time) going to make the sequel?' He said, 'Never. Norman Levy is going to save my father millions by not making that movie.' "
John Davis, now an independent producer at Fox, remembered meeting Giler (he named the bar as Kathy Gallagher's) but said he did not remember any conversation about "Aliens." "It's simply not a true story," he said.
Summer, 1983 : Larry Wilson, a development executive working for the Phoenix Co. (Giler's production company), was searching for writers for "Aliens." He came across a script called "The Terminator" by James Cameron and couldn't put it down. "It was electrifying," Wilson recalled. "I put the script on David's (Giler) desk and said, 'This is the guy.' " Giler and partners Hill and Carroll quickly agreed on Cameron, and he was hired to do a "treatment" (a short-form version of a script that lays out the story for a movie).
Fall, 1983 : The 42-page treatment, written in three days, was submitted to Fox where, because of lack of support for the idea, the project went into its own form of hyper-sleep. Said Cameron: "An executive told me he didn't like the treatment because it was wall-to-wall horror and it needed more character development." At one point a deal was almost closed to sell the rights to the sequel to producers Mario Kassar and Andrew Vanja ("Rambo") but the lawyers couldn't close the deal. Prospects for a sequel looked dim.
July, 1984 : Independent producer Larry Gordon was hired to replace former studio production head Joe Wizan. Finding few projects in the production pipeline, he looked for possible sequels and came across the "Aliens" file. "I couldn't believe it hadn't already been done," Gordon said. "In this business there are those decisions you agonize and lose sleep over, but this was so obvious. It was a no-brainer."
Gordon, who had worked with Walter Hill on "48 HRS.," revived the project and agreed to let Cameron write and direct the script after seeing "The Terminator." The deal also included Gale Anne Hurd, then Cameron's collaborator and girlfriend, as producer.