With more than 30 feature films to his credit over a career spanning 50 years, it’s difficult to say Steven Spielberg has left anything on the table. The director of such films as 1975’s Jaws, 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, and 1982’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial has twice won the Academy Award for Best Director (for 1993’s Schindler’s List and 1998’s Saving Private Ryan) and is regarded as the most successful filmmaker in the history of Hollywood.
Like all directors, his filmography represents only movies that were able to cross the finish line. Scattered throughout Spielberg’s career are projects he had designs on making but, for one reason or another, wound up falling apart. Take a look at 11 movies that Spielberg nearly made, and then browse 12 additional films that he almost got up and running.
1. Flushed With Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper
As a neophyte in the film business, Spielberg was initially under a seven-year contract to Universal in the 1960s and early 1970s, directing episodes of Rod Serling’s Night Gallery television series and Marcus Welby, MD. He was free to pitch feature film projects to the studio, though, and one of the first he handed over was a 1969 book titled Flushed With Pride: The Story of Thomas Crapper by author Wallace Reyburn.
The biography details the life and times of fecal innovator Crapper, who is one of several men credited with popularizing the flush toilet. The screenwriting team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz (1986’s Howard the Duck) worked with Spielberg on a treatment. Spielberg no doubt saw it as an opportunity for an irreverent comedy, but his agent, Guy McElwaine, thought it would be a catastrophe and threatened to drop him as a client if he pursued it.
2. Night Skies
Following the success of 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Columbia Pictures wanted to keep Spielberg in the alien movie business. He began researching the story of the Sutton family of Kentucky, who alleged that they had an alien encounter on their farm in 1955. Spielberg envisioned a rural setting for an encounter between humans and aliens who had malevolent intentions. He titled it Watch the Skies—later Night Skies—and asked John Sayles to write the script. In 1980, he also hired makeup wizard Rick Baker to design the look of the aliens. Spielberg intended for production designer Ron Cobb, who worked on 1977’s Star Wars, to make his directorial debut while Spielberg produced.
At some point, Spielberg decided that if he were to make another movie about aliens, he wanted them to be friendly rather than menacing. Columbia was also growing concerned with the considerable production costs of what was quickly becoming a fairly dark version of Spielberg’s typically upbeat vision. Working with screenwriter Melissa Mathison, his idea for a visiting space creature became 1982’s E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.
Both Baker and Cobb were disappointed the film failed to materialize, but Cobb got some delayed compensation for his efforts. Years later, his wife Robin discovered language in his contract stating Cobb was entitled to a $7500 kill fee and 1 percent of net profits that would come from E.T. Universal sent him a check for $400,000.
3. Ghost Soldiers
Following a successful collaboration on 2002’s science fiction thriller Minority Report, Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise planned to make another picture in quick succession. Ghost Soldiers was to be adapted from the 2001 Hampton Sides book about American survivors of the Bataan death march in World War II and their subsequent imprisonment in a Japanese camp. Ghost Soldiers never materialized, but Spielberg and Cruise did work together again in 2005’s War of the Worlds.
4. Who Discovered Roger Rabbit
In 1988, Spielberg produced Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a successful blend of live-action and animation that saw a human private eye (Bob Hoskins) interacting with the inhabitants of a cartoon reality. Disney was pleased with the film and wanted a follow-up. One script, Who Discovered Roger Rabbit, featured Roger unwittingly working with Nazis and the libidinous Jessica Rabbit searching for her mother.
A young J.J. Abrams was attached to work on the project in 1989, but Spielberg wasn’t keen on the ideas presented. Worse, Disney had made two Roger Rabbit shorts, Tummy Trouble and Roller Coaster Rabbit, that were causing tension with the filmmaker. Spielberg wanted Roller Coaster Rabbit to be paired with 1990’s Arachnophobia, a film he was producing. Disney CEO Michael Eisner wanted it on Dick Tracy. Eisner, being head of the company, won out (which may have soured Spielberg on contributing to any of Roger’s further adventures).
In 2008, Spielberg’s DreamWorks production house acquired the rights to author John Wyndham’s 1968 book about a boy with an imaginary friend who is experiencing something more than adolescent daydreaming. He’s actually being possessed by an alien consciousness. Despite ticking many of the Spielberg boxes—aliens, youth, and existing material—it didn’t come into focus. Chocky was, however, adapted into a popular six-episode ITV series in 1984.
6. The Martian Chronicles
Spielberg wanted to oversee an adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s 1940s short stories about humans colonizing Mars and the ensuing nuclear war between humans and Martians. For Spielberg, it would have been realizing a longtime dream of collaborating with one of his major influences. Upon Bradbury’s death in 2012 at age 91, Spielberg said that, “He was my muse for the better part of my sci-fi career. He lives on through his legion of fans. In the world of science fiction and fantasy and imagination he is immortal.”
Spielberg first circled the project in 1997 but nothing materialized. To date, the only adaptation has been a 1980 television miniseries.
Spielberg wanted to update the 1950 Jimmy Stewart classic about a man named Elwood P. Dowd who has a giant invisible rabbit for a best friend. (That film was based on a play by Mary Chase.) Spielberg intended to begin filming the movie in 2010, possibly with Tom Hanks or Robert Downey Jr. in the leading (human) role. But Hanks was apparently uninterested in trying to assume one of Stewart’s most well-known roles; Downey Jr. had script recommendations that purportedly didn’t align with Spielberg’s intentions. A Harvey remake—sans Spielberg—was announced at Netflix in 2018, with Shrek 2 screenwriters J. David Stem and David N. Weiss writing it.
Spielberg wanted to adapt the 2011 Daniel H. Wilson novel Robopocalypse, about robots controlled by an immature artificial intelligence named Archos who rise up against humans. He was even prepared to begin shooting in 2013 before he ultimately decided that the script—by writer Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the Woods)—wasn’t exactly where he wanted it to be. Spielberg was also up against a considerable production budget. Before the film collapsed, it was set to star Anne Hathaway and Chris Hemsworth.
But Spielberg apparently hasn’t given it up altogether. In 2018, he said he was still working on it. “I've been working for years on Robopocalypse,” he said. “Because it's this story of the most profound sentient chromatin of man who basically is so much smarter than man, he needs to wrest control away from the human race and take over the world—a little bit like Pinky and the Brain. But it's scary.”
9. The Grapes of Wrath
In 2013, Spielberg was interested in producing a new adaptation of the 1939 John Steinbeck novel about the poverty-stricken Joad family during the Great Depression, which had previously been adapted in 1940 with Henry Fonda. Aside from typical Hollywood production struggles, the project may have been impacted by a family squabble involving Steinbeck’s heirs, who have been engaged in a protracted legal struggle to assert control over his works.
10. The Rivals
In the 19th century, theater actors Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse were fierce stage rivals, sometimes even playing the same part on the same night so that they could have their performances critiqued to see who was the superior talent. Spielberg considered directing a feature film version of the feud in 2003. It never happened, but the story may yet come to fruition. In 2018, director Michael Sucsy optioned Playing to the Gods, a book about their competitive relationship.
11. The Talisman
There were no two bigger Steves in entertainment in the 1980s than Spielberg and Stephen King. Surprisingly, the two never teamed up for a project, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. In 1982, Spielberg acquired the rights to The Talisman, a fantasy novel written by King and Peter Straub about a 12-year-old named Jack Sawyer who goes on an adventure in the alternative reality known as the Territories to save his mother’s life. Spielberg was so enthusiastic about the book that he had Universal obtain the screen rights two full years before the book’s publication in 1984. Ever since, he’s tried to mount an adaptation to little avail. (The two had a semi-collaboration when Spielberg’s company, Amblin, produced King’s Under the Dome for CBS, based on King’s 2009 book.)
This Spielberg project may have a chance at daylight. In March 2021, Netflix partnered with Spielberg and brothers Matt and Ross Duffer (Stranger Things) for a miniseries based on the novel. While nothing is guaranteed, it probably stands a better chance than Flushed With Pride.