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Digging for Atari's 'corporate shame,' the buried E.T. games

At SXSW, a team of filmmakers said they're ready to start shoveling garbage out of a New Mexico landfill in the hunt for millions of units of the buried treasure. Their film will document the whole tragic story.

An original E.T. game cartridge, signed by the lead designer. Millions were made, and most of them were buried in a New Mexico landfill after the game was deemed one of the worst ever. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

AUSTIN, Tex.--E.T. wants to go home. But first there will have to be a massive excavation of a city's garbage dump.

As is part of video game industry lore, in 1983, Atari ran screaming from its ill-advised E.T. game and hastily and quietly buried millions of cartridges. Somewhere. No one was quite sure where.

It turns out, the where was Alamgordo, N.M., and almost certainly deep in the giant city garbage dump. Last year, a team of filmmakers announced they're working on a documentary about the infamous E.T. game disaster -- which cost Atari $500 million and drove it into financial ruin. And at South by Southwest this week, they talked at length about the project and their plans to excavate the games and make their movie.

The filmmakers behind the movie about the excavation of the infamous E.T. game cartridges make a point about why they were buried Daniel Terdiman/CNET

The history of Atari's disaster is pretty well known. In 1983, on the heels of the unbelievable success of Steven Spielberg's "E.T.," the suits at Atari ordered a game version. Pronto. They wanted it to hit shelves in six weeks. In an industry where quality mainstream games usually took months, this was a tall order. The result? An effort generally thought to be one of the worst games in history -- shallow, ugly, boring. It sold 1.5 million units immediately because of the movie's success, but then sales ground to a full-stop halt.

Flash forward 30 years and the folks at Lightbox and Fuel Entertainment got together to make a movie about this legend. They got Microsoft on board to distribute it on its Xbox film series, and they were off for New Mexico.

At SXSW, Johnathan Chinn, the co-president and producer at Lightbox, and Mike Burns, the CEO of Fuel Entertainment explained where they're at with things. For one, they're almost certain that the games are buried in the city dump in Alamogordo. But even if that turns out to be true, it's a massive facility, and it will not be a simple matter of digging one hole and declaring victory. The dig could take time, they said, and they'll want help. They hope that people will show up to assist and, perhaps, cheer them on.

Most likely, they'll start the excavation -- with the permission of the dump, of course -- sometime this spring. Perhaps as early as April. Assuming they find the cartridges in short order, the dig could be over quickly. But it could also drag on. Regardless, the movie itself is about much more than just the creation of the video game and its subsequent tarnished history. Instead, the filmmakers said they realized there was an opportunity to wrap that story around a larger tale of Atari's rise and fall. From being a company founded by the larger-than-life Nolan Bushnell, which hired the young Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, to one whose name and intellectual property has been sold and bought and dispensed with and rescued time and time again.

At the heart of that roller-coaster ride, though, is the misguided attempt to cash in on Spielberg's theatrical triumph. "My sense is that this is a story of corporate shame," Chinn said. "They just wanted it to go away, but here we are making a film about it. The moral of the story is: Don't just bury your mistakes."

While there will be a lot about Atari in the film, the real drawing card will be the hunt for the buried games. A good bit of that could be the film production team's many trips to and time spent in and around Alamogordo. "I did speak to a bunch of witnesses in Alamogordo, who were kids in 1983," Chinn recalled, "who claimed that they snuck into the landfill and stole cartridges that were totally playable. Other people, including people at Atari, claimed that there wasn't anything interesting there."