History, Legacy & Showmanship
Wednesday, 21 October 2015 02:01

Going Back in Time: Remembering “Back to the Future” on its 30th Anniversary

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“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

The Digital Bits is pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 30th anniversary of the release of Back to the Future, Robert Zemeckis’s “comedy adventure science fiction time travel love story” starring Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd.  [Read on here…]

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.

Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd



  • 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)

Lea Thompson and Michael J. Fox



“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

Crispin Glover and Michael J. Fox

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



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


  • 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.

70mm film frame



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).

Michael J. Fox

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.

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