Steven Spielberg on 'E.T.'s Reese's Pieces Scene and How It Changed From Script to Screen (Flashback)

The filmmaker and Kathleen Kennedy explained to ET how the product placement in their beloved alien tale unfolded behind the scenes.

Steven Spielberg originally wanted E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial to feature his favorite candy. But it wasn't Reese's Pieces. 

To celebrate the iconic film’s 40th anniversary, ET is looking back at one of its most famous behind-the-scenes stories. As Spielberg and producer Kathleen Kennedy explained about the fan-favorite scene, in screenwriter Melissa Mathison’s initial draft, Elliott (Henry Thomas) left a trail of M&Ms to lure the shy alien to his home in the San Fernando Valley. 

So, why the switch?

“I wasn't in direct communication with M&Ms. I simply made the request,” Spielberg told ET in 2001 as he promoted the movie’s special edition release for the following year. “It was M&Ms in the screenplay.”

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Years before shepherding a new era for Star Wars as president of Lucasfilm, Kennedy produced several movies regarded as essential classics today, including the Back to the Future, Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones franchises, to name a few. At the beginning of this prolific career, Kennedy was Spielberg's assistant before quickly receiving one of her first producer credits for E.T.

As she recalled, Spielberg was intent on keeping everything about the movie under wraps throughout production, which not only included story details, but, most crucially, the titular otherworldly being’s appearance.

“He didn't want anyone to see the character of E.T. or get pictures,” Kennedy told ET in 2001.

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This air of secrecy led to the eventual downfall of E.T.’s potential collaboration with M&M's, a candy under the umbrella of Mars, Incorporated. Even in the wake of Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark box office success in 1981, the company was hesitant to lend one of its trademark products. 

“When we contacted [Mars] to use M&M's, of course, they wanted to see the script,” Kennedy remembered. “And there was the catch-22, because Steven didn't want to send the script.

Kennedy expressed sympathy for Mars, as executives were only given the broad strokes of the film. “In fairness to them, they were really having to take the leap that what we were doing was something they would feel comfortable having their product be associated with,” she admitted, while also noting that product placement was a “relatively new business” in the early ‘80s. (E.T. premiered a year before Tom Cruise’s Ray-Bans in Risky Business skyrocketed sales of the sunglasses, and a decade before Mike Myers put a unique twist on the trend in Wayne’s World by both mocking product placements, while concurrently promoting Pepsi, Doritos, Pizza Hut and Reebok in a single scene.)

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After Kennedy reached out with the proposal, which also included promotional tie-ins to coincide with the movie’s release, crucial time passed while Mars deliberated the agreement. But with production looming, she and Spielberg were forced to examine alternatives. 

While M&M’s might have been the director’s favorite at the time, he didn’t have to think too hard about his secondary go-to treat, Reese’s Pieces, owned by longtime Mars competitor The Hershey Company.

“I was just told that we weren't given permission to use M&M's, so I said, ‘Well, what's my next favorite candy?'" Spielberg recalled. “Which [has] now become my most favorite candy, because I've been eating it now for 20 years and that's Reeses Pieces. [Hershey] said yes and that became the candy of the hour.”

“When we were running out of time and [Mars] hadn't given us the OK, we went to Reese’s Pieces and the rest is history,” Kennedy said. “I think they had a lot of regret after saying no.” 

With E.T.’s release coming just a few years after Reese’s Pieces, an extension of Hershey’s wildly popular Reese’s Peanut Cups, first hit the market in 1978, the collaboration was synergy at its best.

“In a way, Reese's Pieces was relatively new in '82. We sort of helped each other,” Spielberg said.

And the numbers back this up. 

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E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial wound up earning over $350 million at the worldwide box office following its debut on June 11, 1982. Meanwhile, reports at the time said Reese’s Pieces celebrated a roughly 65% bump in sales thanks to the movie’s overwhelming cultural response. 

While the Reese’s Pieces of it all may not stack up against the film's most notable timeless qualities, such as John Williams' sweeping score or the iconic imagery of the aerial bike ride backlit against a full moon, the candy remains synonymous with one of the most beloved movies of all time. 

Drew Barrymore, who famously became E.T.’s breakout star at just six years old, says she counts herself as one of many who continue to form unique connections to the movie four decades later.

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“[E.T.] certainly taught us all who were making it to be patient and loving with the unfamiliar. And to protect those that are different than us,” the talk show host shared with ET in April. “And I'm positive that that is what made me an open-minded, open-hearted person for the rest of my life… And I think it is a lot about healing, too. There's that element to it. I just think it has all the components. It's also got a great adventure. It's very celebratory of life.”

Dee Wallace, who played Barrymore's mom, Mary Taylor, in the film, echoes the sentiment. Wallace is a healer and author who has gone on to do over 265 films. She has a new book out now titled Born: Giving Birth to a New You.

"It's really the formula for how to create anything in your life," she shared with ET. "E.T. was a perfect example of that. He knew what he wanted, he wanted to go home. He trusted the universe to come in through these kids, and help him. And he got it, didn't he?"

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial streams on Peacock. 


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