Steven Spielberg is nearing 60 years behind the director’s chair of feature films. In that time, he’s made some of the most iconic and endearing films of the past century, including Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and the Indiana Jones films. Simply put, directors don’t get any bigger than Spielberg.
With that kind of pedigree and versatility comes lots of options for what project you can choose. Spielberg never limited himself to a single genre or signature style. Instead, he made his name on popcorn entertainment in all facets, whether they made you cry, laugh, cheer, or even all three at the same time.
Spielberg remains a fascinating case study in what happens when a director can pretty much do whatever they want. There are other directors who sweat and toil for years to get their dream projects made – and then there’s Spielberg. All he has to do is say that he’s interested in a project and it gets greenlit seemingly overnight.
That means that, throughout his five decades of film, Spielberg has left plenty of projects on the table. From abandoning ideas in their embryonic stages to outright cancellations just before shooting was set to begin, Spielberg has seen movies in nearly every stage of their production get the axe for one reason or another. Sometimes that reason is Spielberg himself, whether he believes the film isn’t working or he simply wants to move on to another movie.
Here are some of the most fascinating “what-if” scenarios that almost became Steven Spielberg projects.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind 2 / Night Skies
Following the success of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg expressed interest in continuing the film’s story in another instalment. However, after the negative experience of being replaced for Jaws 2 and expressing doubt that he could devote all of his energy to the project, Spielberg declined the idea of a direct sequel.
Instead, he began conceiving of a sci-fi horror film entitled Night Skies, which was to be a continuation of the ideas and themes established in Close Encounters. At one point, writer/director Lawrence Kasdan was hired to write a script, but ultimately nothing came of the idea. Spielberg and Kasdan saved their next collaboration for Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Spielberg toned down some of his alien invasion ideas for what would eventually morph into E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.
Nearly 30 full years before Marvel movies officially took over theatres, Spielberg was chasing his own comic book adaptation. DC Comics’ Blackhawk was to follow the titular team of World War II pilots working under a mysterious leader. Dan Aykroyd was signed on to star, and production was to begin in the early 1980s.
When faced with the decision to either flesh out Raiders of the Lost Ark or Blackhawk, Spielberg chose Indiana Jones. The rights to Blackhawk are still held by Warner Bros., and as recently as 2021, there were still rumours that Spielberg would return to the project. That seems unlikely to happen any time soon, but this is one of the rare films on this list that could actually still happen.
Who Discovered Roger Rabbit?
After having produced Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Spielberg almost immediately sought to switch positions with director Robert Zemeckis to begin production on another film. Taking the form of a prequel, Who Discovered Roger Rabbit would have featured the meeting between Roger and Jessica Rabbit, the latter of whom would be kidnapped and forced to make propaganda films for the Nazis.
Spielberg ultimately abandoned the idea after making Schindler’s List, but the idea of a second Roger Rabbit film continues to percolate. A few different scripts were made for the project, and Zemeckis continues to state that he’s interested in the film, although he’s expressed doubts that Disney would greenlight the film due to its corporate nature.
The Curse of Monkey Island
Thanks to its connection with George Lucas’ video game company LucasArts, a proposed film for the successful Monkey Island game series eventually landed Spielberg as a prospective director. With collaborations from Industrial Lights and Magic and Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment production company, The Curse of Monkey Island was given a tentative 2000 release date.
Multiple scripts, storyboards, and concept designs were produced, but ultimately, it seemed as though there were too many cooks working in the Monkey Island kitchen. The idea for a comical swashbuckler movie was later overtaken by the Pirates of the Caribbean series, although Spielberg never stopped longing to make a pirate film.
In 2005, Spielberg’s DreamWorks Pictures sold their studio Viacom company, where it was paired with the conglomerate’s legendary film studio, Paramount Pictures. However, Viacom sold its controlling interest in DreamWorks just a year later, and by 2008, DreamWorks was looking to once again make itself an independent studio.
All of this business chicanery wound up spoiling a potential Spielberg film, a drama covering the real-life feud between French actress Sarah Bernhardt and Italian actress Eleanor Duse. Entitled The Rivals, the film was set to star Nicole Kidman and Gwenyth Paltrow, then Kidman and Marion Cotillard, before DreamWorks’ split with Paramount caused Spielberg to leave the project.
Untitled Martin Luther Kind Jr. biopic
In 2009, Spielberg successfully bought the rights to legendary civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr.’s life story. Having previously directed films like The Color Purple and Amistad to only moderate critical reception, the idea of Spielberg helming an MLK film was both exciting and nerve-wracking.
And then: nothing. Spielberg has directed eight films since buying the rights to King’s life story but has yet to actually make any significant leaps in terms of starting production. He still owns the film rights, so there’s a possibility that Spielberg could direct, or at least produce, an MLK movie at some point down the line.
After the failed attempts to get The Curse of Monkey Island off the ground, Spielberg still held an ambition to direct a pirate film. During the height of the Pirates of the Caribbean success, Spielberg bought the rights to Michael Crichton’s Pirate Latitudes, the same writer who created the Jurassic Park series.
Spielberg hired frequent collaborator David Koepp to write a script, with DreamWorks acting as the production studio. From there, the film stalled out much in the same way that The Curse of Monkey Island did. This was an especially nebulous period for Spielberg, with many projects in the air that we’ll cover more of down below.
Untitled George Gershwin biopic
In the time after he completed Indiana Jones and the Kindgom of the Crystal Skull, Spielberg had no less than five (and likely a few more) potential projects to choose from. Those included The Adventures of Tintin and War Horse, both of which came out in 2011, along with the Martin Luther King Jr biopic and Pirates Latitude.
Another project Spielberg was attempting to kickstart was a biopic for legendary composer George Gershwin. Zachary Quinto was tapped to play the lead role, and shooting was set to begin in April of 2010. However, Spielberg elected to shoot War Horse instead, causing the Gershwin film to stall.
The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara
In 2016, Spielberg was planning to adapt David Kertzer’s book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, a recounting of the infamous Mortara case that eventually led to the fall of Pope Pius IX. Spielberg had a whole team in place, including frequent screenwriting partner Tony Kushner, Mark Rylance as the Pop, and Oscar Isaac as a grown-up Mortara.
What Spielberg couldn’t find was a six-year-old actor who could convincingly play the part of Mortara around the time of his kidnapping. After being shown the script for what would eventually become his next project, The Post, Spielberg decided to turn his attention away from The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara and has yet to return to it.
Some of Spielberg’s unrealized films entered brief stages of production, but few films got as far as Robopocalypse. The adaptation of Daniel H. Wilson’s 2011 sci-fi novel managed to get a script, a cast, and even a release date in place before Spielberg became unhappy with the development and put the film on hold in 2013.
Spielberg wanted to rework the script and estimated that the film would only be delayed for a few months before restarting production. Spielberg eventually became interested in directing Bridge of Spies, and after numerous delays. Robopocalypse eventually landed with director Michael Bay of all people.