On the face of it, Alien wasn't a huge financial success, which is rather bizarre considering that it actually grossed at least $104.9 million at the box office from just an $11 million budget. According to 20th Century Fox, though, because of the amount they spent on advertising, distribution fees and various other costs, they actually only made a minimal profit on it. So when James Cameron decided to pitch a sequel to the blockbuster, it was always likely that the studio would turn it down. However, The Terminator director was able to pitch Aliens in such an original and frankly hysterical fashion that they immediately green-lit it.
According to Go Into The Story, Gordon Carroll, who worked as an executive producer on Aliens, recalled James Cameron's unique pitch for the blockbuster for Linda Obst's book Hello, He Lied. At this point in his career, James Cameron was actually on a bit of a high, having just achieved fame and success with 1984's The Terminator. So when he walked into his meeting to direct Aliens, he was so confident that his pitch would be accepted he acted like a total rock star. The story goes:
[James] Cameron was young. He had just directed Terminator. Cameron had called a meeting to discuss his "next project." Everyone knew Cameron had written a treatment for Alien 2 that nobody would touch because Alien was not a massive financial success. Alien 2 was not on the table. We expected a professional pitch from Cameron, an outline and a treatment of what he had in mind with a cursory budget; perhaps a couple assistants to run a slide show. Instead Cameron walked in the room without so much as a piece of paper. He went to the chalk board in the room and simply wrote the word ALIEN. Then he added an 'S' to make ALIENS. Dramatically, he drew two vertical lines through the 'S', ALIEN$. He turned around and grinned. We green-lit the project that day for $18 million.
That immediately goes down as the greatest movie pitch in the history of movie pitches. I can only hope that everyone else in the room laughed maniacally when James Cameron had finished and then they all lit cigars with $100 bills.
The decision to hire James Cameron for Aliens worked out very well for everyone involved, too. First and foremost, James Cameron was able to create one of the greatest action films of all time, which helped to redefine the genre. It then grossed at least $131.1 million at the box office from just an $18 million budget, and was even nominated for seven Academy Awards. It also gave us scenes like this, too.
Aliens also expanded the universe so richly and convincingly that it convinced 20th Century Fox to make Alien 3, Alien: Resurrection and Prometheus. They've each flattered to deceive a little, but the early buzz is that Alien: Covenant could right these slight wrongs. We'll find out when Alien: Covenant is released on May 19.