Steven Spielberg’s first movie, ‘Firelight,’ celebrates 60 years since its Phoenix premiere

Mar 29, 2024, 9:30 AM

Phoenix Little Theater where Steven Spielberg premiered first film...

Steven Spielberg's first film, "Firelight," debuted at the Phoenix Little Theater, which is now part of the Phoenix Theatre Company. (IMDB photos)

(IMDB photos)

PHOENIX – In 2022’s Oscar-nominated “The Fabelmans,” director Steven Spielberg attempted to reconcile his Hollywood legacy with memories of his childhood, specifically his years growing up in Phoenix.

One aspect it doesn’t dive into is “Firelight,” the first feature-length project Spielberg directed that premiered 60 years ago this week at the Phoenix Little Theater, now part of the Phoenix Theatre Company.

Michael Barnard, the Phoenix Theatre Company’s artistic director, said when Spielberg visited the theater in 2018, he called “Firelight” the most difficult movie he’s ever had to make and thanked his father, Arthur Spielberg, for doing much of the heavy lifting.

“His father was a subscriber to the Phoenix Little Theater at the time and was trying to help [Steven] pitch it around to movie theaters. He called the theater and said, ‘If we get a screen, would you be willing to host it?’ They said yes and now there’s a picture under our marquee,” Barnard told KTAR News 92.3 FM.

What is Spielberg’s first film, “Firelight,” about?

The film follows a scientist and UFO enthusiast working together to investigate strange lights in the sky in a fictional Arizona town. They discover an alien plot threatening the world, as well as contend with relationship problems.

Spielberg, only 17 at the time of filming, cast ASU drama students Lucky Lohr and Robert Robyn as the leads and filmed most of the movie in Echo Canyon, just northwest of Scottsdale.

In addition to Spielberg’s father helping with distribution and technical elements, his mother Leah helped him write the music, which was then recorded by the Arcadia High School Marching Band.

“Firelight” premiered on March 24, 1964, as immortalized in a photograph now on display at the Phoenix Theatre Company.

Barnard said Spielberg signed the photograph during his 2018 visit. He wrote: “To PLT, my first movie theater.”

Spielberg remembers Phoenix Little Theater fondly

Barnard said the movie was made for a $500 budget, with tickets selling that night for a dollar a piece and making a $5 profit.

Spielberg himself, in one of the few times he’s publicly mentioned the film, had a slightly different recollection in a 1999 interview with Inside the Actor’s Studio. He said it only made one dollar because “Someone must have paid two dollars.”

Barnard said the 2018 visit from Spielberg brought up fond memories.

“Earlier in the day, he came to our theater, he walked his daughter onto the stage, looked out into the audience and started crying,” Barnard said. “He said, ‘This is exactly where I was when I was 17 years old.'”

Sadly, the film’s potential as a sci-fi classic wasn’t meant to be.

Rumor says Spielberg’s “Firelight” may have burned in a fire

When Spielberg moved to Los Angeles to make his way as a television director, he took the tape of “Firelight” as a proof of concept.

What happened next has never been confirmed. Barnard heard the tape was destroyed in a fire. Other sources said a producer Spielberg worked with lost the tape.

The result is that only four minutes of footage – just two percent of the film’s 135 minutes final product – still exist on sites like YouTube and Vimeo, albeit with sound out of sync with some of the visuals.

But the film’s artistic legacy eventually saw a much bigger platform.

When Spielberg wanted to follow up the success of “Jaws,” he looked back to those themes of alien invasion and human connection he explored in “Firelight.”

The result was 1977’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” several sections of which were reportedly shot-by-shot remakes of those from “Firelight.” It would rake in $300 million in box office profits and earn nine Academy Award nominations, winning two.

Aside from Spielberg, Barnard has yet to meet someone who was in the Little Theater that night in 1964. But he is proud to be a part of the legacy of the film and the theater that showcased it.

Barnard said he hopes the Phoenix Theatre Company can inspire and support the next generation of moviemakers.

“It’s a phenomenal piece of history and we’re so grateful to be the guardians of that space,” he said. “If the film does in fact exist, I think it would be fabulous to see the whole thing.”

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Steven Spielberg’s first movie, ‘Firelight,’ celebrates 60 years since its Phoenix premiere