The Digital Bits celebrates the occasion with this article presenting the usual collection of features Bits readers have to come to expect from the History, Legacy & Showmanship column: a compilation of box-office data that places the performance of Back to the Future in context, passages from vintage film reviews, production and exhibition information, a list of the movie’s 70-millimeter “showcase” presentations, and, finally, an interview segment with a group of historians who discuss the attributes of Back to the Future and examine its enduring appeal.
- 1 = Number of Academy Awards
- 1 = Rank among top-grossing movies during opening weekend
- 1 = Rank among top-grossing movies of 1985 (calendar year)
- 2 = Rank among top-grossing movies of 1985 (summer season)
- 3 = Rank among Universal’s top-grossing movies of all time at close of run
- 4 = Number of Academy Award nominations
- 8 = Number of consecutive weeks nation’s top-grossing film
- 8 = Rank among top-grossing movies of the 1980s
- 9 = Rank on all-time list of top-grossing movies at end of theatrical release
- 10 = Number of months between theatrical release and home-video release
- 10 = Rank on all-time list of top box-office rentals at end of theatrical release
- 11 = Number of weeks nation’s top-grossing film
- 22 = Number of consecutive weeks earning at least $1 million
- 46 = Number of days to surpass $100 million
- 62 = Rank on current list of all-time top-grossing films (adjusted for inflation)
- 82 = Number of days to surpass $150 million
- 139 = Rank on current list of all-time top-grossing films
- 231 = Number of days to surpass $200 million
- 1,420 = Number of opening-week bookings
- $11.1 million = Opening-weekend box-office gross
- $19.0 million = Production cost
- $24.5 million = Opening-weekend box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)
- $42.0 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
- $105.5 million = Box-office rental (percentage of the gross exhibitors paid to distributor)
- $170.5 million = International box-office gross
- $189.8 million = Box-office gross (1985 calendar year)
- $210.6 million = Box-office gross
- $381.1 million = Worldwide box-office gross
- $479.5 million = Box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)
- $842.3 million = Worldwide box-office gross (adjusted for inflation)
A SAMPLING OF MOVIE REVIEWER QUOTES:
“Four Stars! One of the most endearing and accomplished of entertainments. The writing here is really the star. It would be a classic even in Hollywood’s golden era.” — Gene Siskel, Chicago Tribune/At the Movies
“One sensational movie. Ingenious, hilarious and wonderfully touching.” — Dennis Cunningham, WCBS-TV, New York
“Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale have made a true American comedy with the sweet wit and benevolent bite of Preston Sturges and Frank Capra.” — Jack Kroll, Newsweek
“Back to the Future is a Steven Spielberg time-travel comedy that’s so busy being clever that it trips over its own ingenuity. Even so, it might have been passable with a charming actor in the leading role. Unfortunately, the movie stars Michael J. Fox of television’s Family Ties, and he gives a television performance. He reads his lines, he doesn’t bump into the furniture, he isn’t embarrassing (except when he plays to the camera), but he is utterly unengaging.” — John Hartl, The Seattle Times
“I spent the entire movie grinning, laughing out loud and brimming with glee. Send up a skyrocket for Back to the Future. It deserves nineteen hundred and fifty-five cheers.” — Gene Shalit, The Today Show, NBC-TV
“Although the humor is not as inventive as Doc’s time machine, happily Zemeckis is less interested in gimmicky special effects than establishing the wackily skewed family relationships and the friendship between Marty and Doc. A great deal of the film’s appeal is in the fresh-faced all-American boy look and charm of Michael J. Fox, a quality familiar to fans of his TV series, Family Ties. I just don’t know how all this sweetness will go down with a teenaged movie audience presumably gung-ho with Rambo—especially now that he’s got the presidential seal of approval. And that’s no joke, son!” — Judy Stone, San Francisco Chronicle
“Performances by the earnest Fox, the lunatic Lloyd, the deceptively passionate Lea Thompson, and, particularly, the bumbling-to-confident Glover, who runs away with the picture, merrily keep the ship sailing.” — Variety
“Strange how scale is occasionally everything in a movie. If Back to the Future had been about the size of, say, Repo Man, it might have been one of those appealing films that begs to be adopted. It’s not. It’s big, cartoonish and empty, with an interesting premise that is underdeveloped and overproduced.” — Sheila Benson, Los Angeles Times
“Among contemporary directors, Mr. Zemeckis’ name comes last alphabetically, but near the top when placed according to talent…. Inexplicably, [I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars] were box office flops, yet some person or people in Hollywood had the faith and foresight to let Mr. Zemeckis keep making pictures. Now, there’ll be no stopping him. His reputation as an artist and entertainer is made.” — Scott Sublett, The Washington Times
“Time travel is an old theme, but it’s given generous shots of originality and downright cleverness in Back to the Future, a sci-fi comedy that’s so delightful it makes you believe again that people with brains and talent really do exist in the outer reaches of Tinsel Town.” — Roxanne T. Mueller, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer
“Back to the Future is the latest cinematic concoction to bear the imprimatur of Steven Spielberg—who seems to have decided that affixing his own name (“Steven Spielberg Presents”) to a movie (a la Federico Fellini or Cecil B. DeMille) is the surest hope of box-office success. He may well be right, of course—and Future could well become (mostly, if not entirely, deservedly) the latest box-office pearl on an ever-lengthening Spielbergian strand.” — David Baron, The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune
“For girls and boys who like games, ideas and toys, Back to the Future probably is worth an afternoon’s good giggle. But baby boomers be forewarned: You had a better guffaw at Son of Flubber!” — Laurie Horn, The Miami Herald
“What movie-goer of any age could resist it…?” — Richard Corliss, Time
“This brilliant contraption of a film could become the hit of the summer. It’s a cinematic Rube Goldberg machine whose parts connect in audacious, witty ways.” — Jay Boyar, The Orlando Sentinel
“An uplifting reminder that Hollywood can still provide truly great entertainment. A faultless, exquisitely developed script and a perfect cast.” — Michael Blowen, The Boston Globe
“Writer-director Robert Zemeckis seems afraid of anything resembling realism. He pushes characters here, as in all his earlier films, to extremes that make them unnecessarily comical.” — Ed Blank, The Pittsburgh Press
“A masterpiece of comic structure.” — Rick Lyman, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“It works with charm, brains and a lot of laughter.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times/At the Movies
“A high energy film full of great ideas and good spirits.” — Leonard Maltin, Entertainment Tonight
“[Director Robert Zemeckis] handles Back to the Future with the kind of inventiveness that indicates he will be spinning funny, whimsical tall tales for a long time to come.” — Janet Maslin, The New York Times
THE ORIGINAL 70MM ENGAGEMENTS:
A few of the 1,400+ prints struck for Back to the Future’s initial theatrical release were in the high-quality 70mm Six-Track Dolby Stereo format. The 70mm presentations, arguably, were the best way in which to experience Back to the Future and the only way to faithfully hear the movie’s Academy Award-nominated sound mix. The theaters in which these coveted presentations played first-run were….
- Los Angeles — General Cinema Corporation’s Avco Center Cinema I-II-III <THX>
- Los Angeles — Pacific’s Cinerama Dome
- San Francisco — Blumenfeld’s Regency I
DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA
- Washington — Washington Circle’s Avalon Twin <HPS-4000>
- New York — Loews’ State Twin
- Toronto — Cineplex Odeon’s Hyland Twin
- Dallas — General Cinema Corporation’s Northpark Cinema I & II <THX>
In addition, there were some 70mm move-over, subsequent runs and special screenings of Back to the Future later in the film’s release in markets such as Chicago (at the Tivoli) and Los Angeles (at the Century Plaza, and at the Hollywood Pacific as a double feature with E.T.). Post original release, the Cinerama Dome played the movie during the theater’s 25th anniversary film festival, and the Cinesphere in Toronto screened it numerous times during their semi-regular 70mm film festivals.
PRODUCTION & EXHIBITION INFORMATION + TRIVIA:
Back to the Future was voted the 16th most-popular movie of all time by readers of the Los Angeles Times in their Magnificent Movie Poll in conjunction with the grand opening of the Universal City 18-screen movie theater complex at Universal Studios. The screening of Future, along with the other 17 most-popular titles (one for each screen in the complex), was held on June 30th, 1987.
If Universal executive Sid Sheinberg had gotten his way, Back to the Future would have been titled Space Man from Pluto.
During the spring of 1985, Back to the Future was test-screened at the Century Dome complex in San Jose, California. The overwhelmingly positive audience response prompted Universal to move up the movie’s release date so that it could have more playtime during the lucrative summer months.
During much of the production of Back to the Future, Michael J. Fox was working on the Family Ties television series. He would work on the TV show during the day and on Back to the Future at night and on weekends.
Advance screenings.... A sneak-preview screening of Back to the Future was held in hundreds of theaters on June 29th, 1985, many of them double-billed with Universal’s Brewster’s Millions and Fletch. And, instead of a formal premiere, an invitational preview was held on July 2nd, at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, before opening to the public on July 3rd.
Connections…. Eric Stoltz, who had originally been cast in the role of Marty McFly before being replaced by Michael J. Fox, had previously starred with Lea Thompson in The Wild Life (1984). Other connections Back to the Future shares with The Wild Life include both being produced by Universal Pictures and Marty’s Walkman music during the “My name is Darth Vader” scene having been recorded by Edward Van Halen for the earlier film…. The teaser trailer for Back to the Future was shown in some theaters with Mask, which starred Eric Stoltz…. Back to the Future re-teamed director Zemeckis with Romancing the Stone cinematographer Dean Cundey, composer Alan Silvestri, production designer Lawrence G. Paull, production sound mixer William B. Kaplan, and supervising sound editor Charles L. Campbell. (Cundey would go on to shoot Who Framed Roger Rabbit, both Back to the Future sequels, and Death Becomes Her for Zemeckis; Silvestri would score all of Zemeckis’s subsequent feature films and Zemeckis’s episode of the Amazing Stories television series, Go to the Head of the Class, which also featured Christopher Lloyd; Kaplan and Campbell would both go on to work on numerous Zemeckis projects.)…. Back to the Future supporting cast members Wendie Jo Sperber and Marc McClure each appeared in Zemeckis’s Used Cars and I Wanna Hold Your Hand. Deborah Harmon, who appeared uncredited in Back to the Future as the TV news anchor in the opening scene, had a role in Used Cars…. In addition to Back to the Future, Zemeckis and Bob Gale collaborated on the screenplays for I Wanna Hold Your Hand, 1941, Used Cars, Trespass, and an episode of Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Gale also co-wrote Zemeckis’s Go to the Head of the Class episode of Amazing Stories…. Back to the Future executive producer Steven Spielberg also executive produced Zemeckis’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Used Cars and directed 1941 which Zemeckis (and Bob Gale) wrote.
Back to the Future inspired two sequels, a theme park attraction, an animated TV series, and a musical.
In early drafts of the screenplay, the time machine was a refrigerator that used an atomic explosion as its power source (a story element Spielberg would use a couple of decades later in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull).
Back to the Future was nominated for four Academy Awards: Original Screenplay, Sound, Sound Effects Editing, and Original Song (The Power of Love). It was awarded the Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing. Other awards included a Saturn for Best Actor (Michael J. Fox), Best Science Fiction Film, and Best Special Effects; a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation; and a People’s Choice Award for Favorite Motion Picture.
Acclaimed artist Drew Struzan painted the image used on the film’s promotional material.
The character of Biff Tannen was named after Universal Pictures executive Ned Tanen (who had the reputation of a bully).
Huey Lewis had a small role in the film as one of the dance audition judges (“I’m afraid you’re just too darn loud”). Lewis was the first in a line of popular musicians to appear in the Back to the Future movies. (Flea, of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, appeared in Part II and Part III, and ZZ Top appeared in Part III.) The song Marty’s band plays is a hard rock version of Huey Lewis and the News’ The Power of Love, one of their two songs featured in the film.
Back to the Future was released on home video in May of 1986. (The home video and TV version ended with a “To Be Continued” tag not present in the original theatrical edition. The tag is not present on the DVD and Blu-ray releases, preserving the original theatrical presentation.) The first TV broadcast was on November 13th, 1988 on NBC. Its first letterboxed release, on LaserDisc, was in 1991. Its first DVD release was in 2002, and it was released on Blu-ray Disc in 2010.
Back to the Future was filmed on soundstages and the backlot at Universal Studios and at locations throughout Southern California, including the Los Angeles communities of Arleta, Hollywood, and Los Feliz; as well as the cities of Burbank, Chino, City of Industry, Pasadena, Santa Clarita, and Whittier.
Back to the Future was the top grossing film in the United States and Canada for an impressive (though not a record) eleven of its first twelve weeks of release.
On November 5th, 1988, Back to the Future was screened during Steven Spielberg Day as a part of the Cinerama Dome’s 25th anniversary film festival, a 17-day, 35-title celebration of popular movies shown at the famous theater between 1963 and 1988. The other Spielberg movies screened that day were 1941, Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Other films in the fest included, among others, 2001: A Space Odyssey, American Graffiti, Apocalypse Now, Blazing Saddles, Out of Africa, Sleeping Beauty, The Sting, This is Cinerama, Top Gun, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
On May 24th, 1990, the day before Part III was released, Back to the Future was included in the “See the Future Back-to-Back-to-Back” triple feature in selected markets.
In 2007, the Library of Congress selected Back to the Future for preservation in the National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
On June 30th, 2015, Back to the Future was screened at the Hollywood Bowl with live musical accompaniment and cast & crew reunion. The music score was conducted by David Newman and performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Jason Aron is the director of Back in Time, a documentary film scheduled for release in October that examines the cultural impact of the Back to the Future trilogy. Jason is also the technical director for the Malka Media Group.
Laurent Bouzereau is the producer of supplemental material on the Back to the Future DVD and Blu-ray Disc releases. Laurent has produced behind-the-scenes featurettes and retrospective documentaries for dozens of films, including Jaws, Psycho, American Graffiti, Lawrence of Arabia, Dressed to Kill, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, and Saving Private Ryan. Other documentary projects include Don’t Say No Until I Finish Talking: The Story of Richard D. Zanuck (2013), Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir (2011), A Night at the Movies: The Horrors of Stephen King (2011), and A Night at the Movies: The Gigantic World of Epics (2009). He has also written several books including Hitchcock: Piece by Piece (Abrams, 2010), Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays (Ballantine, 1997), and The DePalma Cut: The Films of America’s Most Controversial Director (Dembner, 1988). He is the executive producer of Micro, currently in development at DreamWorks and based upon the Michael Crichton/Richard Preston novel published in 2011.
Caseen Gaines is the author of We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy (2015, Plume). He is a high school English teacher and the co-founder of the Hackensack Theatre Company. His other books are Inside Pee-wee’s Playhouse: The Untold, Unauthorized, and Unpredictable Story of a Pop Phenomenon (2011, ECW Press) and A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic (2013, ECW Press).
Rob Klein is the author (with Jennifer Smith) of the Back to the Future Almanac, 1985-2015 (2014, Arkitext). Rob is a Hollywood historian, and has contributed to several documentaries on film and television history. He also works as an archivist for some of the biggest collections of entertainment memorabilia in the world. Rob is currently developing a line of Back to the Future products for EFX, a company that produces high-end entertainment-related memorabilia.
Jennifer Smith is the author (with Rob Klein) of the Back to the Future Almanac, 1985-2015 (2014, Arkitext). Jennifer is an art historian currently teaching at California State University, Northridge. She is also a pop culture historian, writer, and card-carrying member of the Three Stooges Fan Club.
The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” conversation format.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): In what way is Back to the Future worthy of celebration on its 30th anniversary?
Jason Aron: It’s not only the greatest time travel movie of all time but arguably one of the best film trilogies of all time. It has an incredible global following and deserves all the accolades it’s receiving this year.
Laurent Bouzereau: This is a seminal film—it was a benchmark for so many reasons. It became and has remained part of pop culture.
Caseen Gaines: There are few films that were immediately popular upon release, and have remained just as popular for decades afterwards. Back to the Future is one of those films. The movie, and its sequels, are incredibly beloved around the world. So many of the lines have entered our lexicon, and it’s impossible to see a DeLorean or hear Huey Lewis and the News without thinking of the movie.
Rob Klein: It’s a masterpiece of American film. It’s perfect. There’s not one thing that can be improved about it. Everything gelled.
Jennifer Smith: Back to the Future has aged like wine. It’s a funny, intelligent and action-driven film whose core revolves around this crazy friendship between Doc and Marty. It’s reminiscent of the original Star Trek series, the show hinging on the magical triangle of Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Together with the sheer-likability of Back to the Future’s cast and uniqueness of the premise, it’s just about as good as it gets. Also, it doesn’t hurt that it’s 2015.
Coate: When did you first see Back to the Future and what was your reaction?
Aron: I wasn’t old enough to see it in theaters, but for me it became an instant classic at the age of eight or nine.
Bouzereau: I saw it at an all-media screening in New York City. Looking back, what stands out for me is the fact that I knew nothing about the film when I walked in. Everything was a complete surprise. I miss those days!
Gaines: I’m just young enough to have missed seeing the films during their theatrical run, but I saw all three in 1991 or 1992 on VHS. My aunt had just recently purchased the trilogy boxed set, which included a half hour "making of" documentary starring Kirk Cameron, and we watched it together. She was already a big fan, and once I held that VHS box and saw the iconic art of Marty McFly standing with fire running between his legs next to the DeLorean, I was a fan too. The movies didn’t disappoint and immediately captured my imagination.
Klein: I saw it on the first day it came out: July 3, 1985. I knew right off the bat that it was joining the ranks of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jaws, two other prefect films.
Smith: I first saw Back to the Future as a home video rental (sadly), and Back to the Future Part II and III in the theater. I would like this opportunity to apologize to the long-defunct Studio City 20/20 Video, because I wore out that poor Back to the Future tape! I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that a film could start out so whimsically, then shock you with Doc’s assassination, then draw you in to a witty pastiche of the 50s, then tear your guts out with a near-rape scene. Finally, you are tucked back into a happy family future where you almost completely forget everything that just occurred, and are chuckling at old Biff again within ten minutes. It’s like Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan came over to my house and melted my brain. Back to the Future takes you completely by storm. It’s the only film I can recall seeing as a kid (next to Ghostbusters) where I simply could not wait for a sequel.
Coate: Jason, what was the objective with your documentary film, Back in Time?
Aron: We want to look at some of the most amazing fan stories—people who have been affected by Back to the Future and what they’re doing because of it. At the same time we are getting the take of the vast majority of the cast and crew and really looking at the cultural relevance of this thing.
Coate: Laurent, can you describe your experience working on the supplemental material on the DVD and, later, for the Blu-ray release?
Bouzereau: It was a privilege to be involved with the different incarnations of Back to the Future. What stands out is the friendship I developed with Bob Gale. He was at my side during the entire process and was so supportive. Meeting everyone involved is always awesome, but sharing the experience with Michael J. Fox on those different occasions was extra special. He is just so courageous and so generous—truly an inspiration. I had a similar experience interviewing Christopher Reeve for another time travel movie, Somewhere in Time. Those are moments that become just so emotional and memorable.
Coate: Caseen, what was the objective with your book, We Don’t Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy?
Gaines: The Back to the Future trilogy is pretty well documented, but I wanted to add some more depth to the stories that had been told on the DVD / Blu-ray special features, as well as see if there were any other new stories that hadn’t been told. I was less concerned with what happened during the making of the films, and more interested in how and why those things happened. Yes, we know Eric Stoltz was cast as Marty McFly before Michael J. Fox, but what was it like actually on set with him? Why did Robert Zemeckis, at that point in his career, decide to use all his capital in Hollywood to ask Universal permission to recast that role? How did the cast and crew feel about extending production by several months? That’s just one example of the way I approached telling this story.
Coate: What compelled you to write the book?
Gaines: Like every Back to the Future fan, I have been waiting for 2015 my entire life. As the 30th anniversary of the first film approached, as well as this year, where Marty travels to the future in Part II, I was surprised that no book had been written to take an in-depth look at the making of these films and all that has happened afterwards, not only in the United States, but around the world. Fans of the franchise can find information in a lot of different places, but I wanted to put all of those stories, and new ones, under one roof.
Coate: Was there anything surprising or significant that you discovered while researching and writing your book that Back to the Future fans might not know?
Gaines: What surprised me the most is probably the severity of a stunt that went wrong on the set of Back to the Future Part II. One of the stuntwomen was dropped from 30 feet in the air during the hoverboard chase scene and almost died. You can actually see it in the finished film, if you’re looking out for it. I had heard of this accident, but had no idea how bad it was until I spoke with the stuntwoman, Cheryl Wheeler, and the rest of the actors and stunt performers who were on set that day. In addition to that, there were lots of interesting stories from the cast and crew about working with Crispin Glover, Eric Stoltz, and the various DeLoreans, all of which could be difficult to handle at times.
Coate: Rob and Jennifer, what was the objective with your book, The Back to the Future Almanac?
Klein: To provide Back to the Future fans with a book on the film, and to do something that really covered the fact that, for a movie that is so beloved the world over, there really wasn’t that much merchandise made for it. I thought it would be very surprising for people to realize that there really wasn’t that much made.
Smith: Rob and I wanted to illustrate the many wonderful (and horrible) things produced in support of the Back to the Future films. There was such an untold story within the merchandise, from the total lack of Back to the Future items on the market when it became a surprise smash hit in 1985 to the glut of products flooding the market for Part II. You can actually track Universal Studios’ interest in the films by the amount of stuff created for sale. There hadn’t been an official book written about Back to the Future since 1990, and we just couldn’t believe it. There was so much material left unexamined. Rob is really the primary historian for all of these objects, and because he’s an archivist he’s a walking encyclopedia when it comes to knowing when, why and where something was released. It’s incredible.
Coate: What compelled you to write the book?
Klein: I had been doing a lot of writing for Disney, a company that probably has too much written about it. I thought that, having been a fan for over 25 years and with nothing published since 1990, it was up to us to do it. Nobody had touched the franchise in 25 years.
Smith: Rob and I re-watched the trilogy on a whim, and we were struck again by the friendship between Doc and Marty. It just hits you like a ton of bricks as you get older. We were immediately inspired to add to the scholarship about such an excellent film series. It’s funny, writing a book like this seemed so simple (and we were fools to think so), but I would eventually describe the book to people (as the page count grew and grew) as being like an onion; every time we thought that we had everything covered, a new layer emerged. It eventually resulted in three years of hard work, never to have been completed without the incredibly kind involvement of Back to the Future’s co-producer and writer, Bob Gale. Bob was instrumental in supplying items from his own extensive archive of materials, which really fleshed out the book. His input and support was invaluable.
Coate: How is Back to the Future significant among time-travel movies?
Aron: Hands down the best. The writing, the execution, the realism. No other film comes close.
Bouzereau: Not only does the story work on an emotional level, but if time travel really existed, that would be the way it would work. It makes complete scientific sense. The combination of both the science and the emotional is what makes Back to the Future so unique.
Gaines: Back to the Future is one of the best time travel movies because it’s so hopeful. It’s funny, charming, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. There is a genuine heart that runs through that first film. Also, as far as time travel movies go, the concept is incredibly creative. To take a teenager, send him back in time, and have him accidentally interfere with his teenage parents meeting and falling in love? That’s an idea that deserves to be on screen.
Klein: It’s the one that feels “right.” You don’t scratch your head and go, “What’s happening?” You just believe it.
Smith: One can think of a few time travel films before Back to the Future: Planet of the Apes, The Terminator, Somewhere in Time, Time after Time and the grandfather of them all, The Time Machine. Then you may rightfully consider almost everything coming along after it as completely influenced by the Back to the Future films. Time travel was usually presented in movies as a grave and somber procedure, leading to a few charming glimpses of the past but inevitably ending up with terribly sad drama or monsters. Back to the Future made you feel as if you were involved in the time travel procedure, and that Doc’s calculations and rules were real and tangible. The Back to the Future films made the past awesome and the future a brilliant possibility.
Coate: Where do you think Back to the Future ranks among Robert Zemeckis’s body of work?
Aron: I know he won his Oscar for Forrest Gump, which might be more of a mainstream classic, but he himself says Back to the Future is the best thing he’s ever written, so I’ll go with Bob on this one.
Bouzereau: It is my favorite Bob Zemeckis film. Although I don’t think the man has ever made a film I didn’t like. But that’s the one I take with me to a deserted island!
Gaines: Robert Zemeckis has a new film coming out in a few months called The Walk, and the first teaser trailer begins with the words, "From Academy Award winner Robert Zemeckis / director of Back to the Future." The film is 30 years old, but is still among his best, which is pretty significant praise considering his body of work includes Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Cast Away, Flight, and so many more amazing films. You really can sense Zemeckis coming into his own as a filmmaker on the Back to the Future films, especially the first one.
Klein: Absolutely his best film, no question about it. And that’s saying a lot, because he has made so many extremely enjoyable movies.
Smith: Robert Zemeckis is a formidable director, and has been selectively punching audiences in the face for years with out-of-the-box and brilliant works like the still-underappreciated Death Becomes Her and The Frighteners (for which he was the executive producer). Also, Used Cars ranks as one of my all-time favorite films, and marks the magical spark of the early partnership between Zemeckis and Gale. Still, among all of this movie magic, Back to the Future shines like a diamond. A 1.21 gigawatt diamond. It’s his Sgt. Pepper.
Coate: In what way was firing Eric Stoltz and hiring Michael J. Fox beneficial to the movie?
Aron: There isn’t a single person we interviewed who believes the movie would have worked with Eric. I can almost say with certainty that had Eric been in the film, I might have never even seen it because it would have been dead before I had the chance to watch it.
Bouzereau: I’ll let the filmmakers answer that question.
Gaines: When Michael J. Fox was brought on board, his performance reminded everyone of how good the film could be. Everyone I spoke with commented on how brilliant and funny they thought the script was, but they didn’t feel the humor was being communicated on screen with Eric Stoltz. Which, by the way, isn’t necessarily Stoltz’s fault. Robert Zemeckis is very quick to note that he thinks Stoltz was miscast, and Zemeckis assumes the blame for that. My standard analogy is that it would be like casting Meryl Streep for Melissa McCarthy’s role in Bridesmaids. No one doubts Streep is a fantastic actress, but that wouldn’t be the best part for her to play. It was a similar situation with Stoltz.
Klein: Out of all the people that I’ve spoken with on the crew, they were all very aware of Eric Stoltz’s talent as an actor, but when they read the script, it was very clear who Marty McFly is. And it wasn’t Eric Stoltz. Also, Zemeckis said it best (paraphrasing): “He wasn’t playing the comedy that was such a huge part of the film. Stoltz was too serious.”
Smith: Eric Stoltz is a wonderful and talented actor, but in hindsight, he just seems too cerebral for the role of Marty McFly. It would be like hiring cool Leonard Nimoy to play the bombastic Captain Kirk. All you have to do is watch a few episodes of Family Ties. Fox is a juggernaut of charisma and comedic timing.
Coate: Compare and contrast Back to the Future with the other movies in the trilogy.
Aron: I think as an adult you realize how classic the original was. There are so many elements planted by the writers early on that pay off. There isn’t a wasted shot or frame and I think that’s why it is the classic that it is. The other two movies bring something for everyone. You have the futuristic elements, the western, the humor is still there. They’re all remarkable.
Bouzereau: Each has its own identity and they are equally smart, engaging and fun. But, of course, the first one stands completely on its own and is iconic.
Gaines: The first film scores bonus points for being excellent, especially despite the hurdles behind the scenes, and for having a great and creative concept. The sequels also stand up. Robert Zemeckis told me that Part II is the most interesting film he has ever made, and I tend to agree with him. A lot of people feel it’s the weakest of the three, and maybe that’s true, but it is also the most ambitious in terms of realizing the future, an alternate version of 1985, and revisiting several scenes from the first movie from a fresh perspective. It’s been very fashionable to dismiss Part II, but people are also still asking for their hoverboards, so I suppose the movie wasn’t all that bad. The last film is a great change of pace, deserves credit for being a good Western comedy, and nicely wraps up the series.
Klein: It’s hard to make any sequels work, and be memorable. I feel that sometimes people are very hard on the sequels. In a sequel, people want the same movie, but different, which is an oxymoronic statement. Same but different doesn’t work. So we got Back to the Future Part II, which is the best Twilight Zone feature film ever produced. I’ve mentioned that to people who aren’t really fans of the film and they say, “Oh my God, I’m going back and watching it from that angle.” For Back to the Future Part III, it’s really about Doc, which is inherently different than the first film, which is about Marty and his family. As a fan of American Westerns, what else do you want from a film? Marty plays electric guitars, rides around in and on a DeLorean time machine, saw the future and wears a Hollywood fast-draw cowboy gun belt rig. The films continue to get better with age. They are all-American classics.
Smith: Here’s what’s interesting about Back to the Future: Back to the Future is so brilliantly written that you never need (or receive) an explanation for why the youthful Marty is such a good friend of an aging inventor. There’s no backstory, and you simply never question it. That’s the brilliance of Christopher Lloyd, by the way. His portrayal of Doc walks the line between wacky and incredibly poignant. He plays Doc bigger than life, chewing up the scenery, but the character is so real that his every move feels completely authentic and involving. And don’t even get me started on Tom Wilson and Crispin Glover. Sheer genius. Part II is like ordering lobster tail with a side of lobster tail. There’s so much going on that you can scarcely believe it, and it’s so dark, but you’re screaming, “Yes! Yes! Give me more!” Finally, Part III is a frothy desert: a fantasy of romance, comedy and suspense…with a happy ending, too. I absolutely love Back to the Future Part III, because it just makes you feel good. I mean, Monument Valley? Genius! Also, in the end you know that Doc and Marty, who by this point are your beloved friends, are going to be okay. It makes me teary just thinking about it.
Coate: We are currently in an era of remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels, and 3-D conversions of classic movies. Should Back to the Future be remade or revisited in any way?
Aron: The good news is I think it won’t be whether or not fans want it to because the Bobs won’t do it. There’s no way it could ever be on the level of the originals, so why bother.
Bouzereau: Back to the Future should not be touched.
Gaines: No, never. What would you improve upon? Back to the Future is an excellent story told almost flawlessly on screen. Let’s leave it be.
Klein: It is not possible. The fact that there will not be a Back to the Future Part IV with Zemeckis and Gale just shows how intelligent they are. How do you remake or reboot this? Back to the Future’s success is because everything in the film worked. Script, casting, acting, cinematography, and the car chosen to be the time machine. They had all of these elements, with the exception of one actor, and the film wasn’t working because of one missing piece: Michael J. Fox. There is no way with a remake that they would ever get so many pieces to work together again. Remakes should only be produced on movies that didn’t really work the first time. How do you remake The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather or 2001: A Space Odyssey? If you want a “reboot,” put Back to the Future in your Blu-ray player and reboot it in your mind. Don’t compromise it by making a new and inferior product.
Smith: I am proud that Zemeckis and Gale have had the integrity to just say “no.” I feel the same way. You can’t “reboot” Citizen Kane. And that’s what the Back to the Future trilogy is, the Citizen Kane of trilogies. They just don’t come any better than this.
Coate: What is the legacy of Back to the Future?
Aron: I think the movie is timeless, and when another 30 years goes by we’ll still be watching. It’s just a great, fun movie that will remain relevant for years to come.
Bouzereau: Incredible writing. Fantastic performances. Iconic costumes, props and lines. Inspired directing. A memorable score.
Gaines: Back to the Future has impacted our popular culture significantly. In lots of ways, it has given us a vision of the future to aspire towards. Would people be as fascinated with flying cars and hoverboards if it weren’t for the film? Probably not. This is shown significantly in the book, and rarely mentioned, but one of the greatest legacies is the group of people who worked on those films that have gone on to make other successful movies. Reading the credits is reading a who’s who of Hollywood, many of them were just beginning to perfect their craft on these films.
Klein: Back to the Future is a masterpiece of the late 20th century. I’m not in the minority saying that quality in film is in a decline these days. Back to the Future was shown at the Hollywood Bowl to a crowd of around 17,000 with the original score playing behind it a few nights ago. The crowd was alive, like a rock concert. There aren’t many movies that garner that reaction, whether in its first run or 30 years after the fact. Capturing lightning in a bottle is an act of magic. Zemeckis and Gale captured it again and again during the production of their trilogy.
Smith: Much has been said about the legacy of Back to the Future being the unique presentation of a utopian future in Part II, or the genre-jumping nature of the cowboy-themed Part III. I think the legacy of Back to the Future is that the entire trilogy captured lightning in a bottle. There’s just so much about the films to examine and become involved with. You could never again assemble a cast so perfect with a story so electrifying to be released during such a perfect time, the 1980s. As time passes, Back to the Future just gets better and more emotionally complex with every viewing. A time travel movie that has travelled through time along with me, and through me to my son, whom I hope will love it as much as I did.
Coate: Thank you, everyone, for participating and sharing your thoughts about Back to the Future on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.
PRINCIPAL CAST & CREW:
- Marty McFly — Michael J. Fox
- Dr. Emmett Brown — Christopher Lloyd
- Lorraine Baines — Lea Thompson
- George McFly — Crispin Glover
- Biff Tannen — Thomas F. Wilson
- Jennifer Parker — Claudia Wells
- Dave McFly — Marc McClure
- Linda McFly — Wendie Jo Sperber
- Sam Baines — George DiCenzo
- Stella Baines — Francis Lee McCain
- Mr. Strickland — James Tolkan
- Director — Robert Zemeckis
- Producers — Bob Gale and Neil Canton
- Screenplay — Robert Zemeckis & Bob Gale
- Executive Producers — Steven Spielberg, Frank Marshall, Kathleen Kennedy
- Director of Photography — Dean Cundey
- Production Designer — Lawrence G. Paull
- Editors — Arthur Schmidt, Harry Keramidas
- Music — Alan Silvestri
- Casting — Mike Fenton, Jane Feinberg, Judy Taylor, CSA
- Production Sound Mixer — William B. Kaplan
- Supervising Sound Editors — Charles L. Campbell, Robert Rutledge
- Re-Recording Mixers — Bill Varney, Tenny Sebastian II, Robert Thirlwell, Dan Leahy
- Distributor — Universal Pictures
- Production Company — Amblin Entertainment
- Release Date — July 3, 1985
- Running Time — 116 minutes
- Projection Format — 1.85:1
- Sound Format — Dolby Stereo
- MPAA Rating — PG
Jason Aron, Laurent Bouzereau, Caseen Gaines, Bobby Henderson, Rob Klein, Steve Kraus, Bill Kretzel, Mary Pomponio, Jennifer Smith, Sean Weitzel, and a thank-you to all of the librarians who helped with the research for this project.
Primary references for this project were numerous daily, major-city newspapers archived digitally and/or on microfilm and the trade publications Boxoffice, The Hollywood Reporter, and Variety. Additional references for selected information included Newsweek, Time, and the Back to the Future Souvenir Magazine (Ira Friedman, Inc., 1985). Books referenced included The Cinema of Robert Zemeckis by Norman Kagan (2003, Taylor), The Films of Steven Spielberg by Douglas Brode (1995, Citadel), George Lucas’s Blockbusting: A Decade-by-Decade Survey of Timeless Movies Including Untold Secrets of Their Financial and Cultural Success edited by Alex Ben Block and Lucy Autrey Wilson (2010, George Lucas Books/HarperCollins), The Hollywood Reporter Book of Box Office Hits by Susan Sackett (1996, Billboard), Spielberg: The Man, The Movies, The Mythology by Frank Sanello (1996, Taylor), Steven Spielberg: A Biography by Joseph McBride (1997, Simon & Schuster), and Steven Spielberg: The Man, His Movies and Their Meaning by Philip M. Taylor (1992, Continuum). The following motion picture was referenced: Back to the Future Part (1985, Amblin Entertainment/Universal Pictures). Also referenced were the supplemental material found on the Back to the Future DVD and Blu-ray Disc releases. Websites referenced include BoxOfficeMojo, CinemaTour, CinemaTreasures, and FromScriptToDVD. This is a revised and updated version of a previously-published article.
All figures and data included in this article pertain to the United States and Canada except where stated otherwise.
Copyright 1985 Universal City Studios, Inc. / Amblin Entertainment
- Will Hare (“Pa Peabody”), 1916-1997
- Buck Flower (“Bum”), 1937-2004
- Wendie Jo Sperber (“Linda McFly”), 1958-2005
- George DiCenzo (“Sam Baines”), 1940-2010
- Bill Varney (Re-Recording Mixer), 1934-2011
- Norman Alden (“Lou”), 1924-2012
- Charles L. Campbell (Supervising Sound Editor), 1930-2013