“Rejected Over 40 Times” Back To The Future’s Early Studio Response Looks Ridiculous 38 Years Later

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Summary

  • Despite being considered a classic today, Back to the Future faced numerous rejections from movie studios in the ’80s due to its tone and content.
  • Studios at the time preferred raunchy, R-rated sex comedies, but Back to the Future‘s balanced and grounded approach has given it lasting appeal.
  • The film ultimately got made thanks to Steven Spielberg’s support and the success of director Robert Zemeckis’s previous hit, Romancing the Stone.


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While Back to the Future is now considered a sci-fi classic, many studios turned the movie down for absurd reasons. It’s not controversial to state that Back to the Future is one of the best films of the ’80s. The premise of a teenager who must ensure his parents get together after accidentally time-traveling back to the 1950s and messing with original events is a work of high-concept genius. While Back to the Future’s script saw some changes over the course of its journey to the screen, writers Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis kept its resonant core intact.

In hindsight, it seems ridiculous that studios would turn down Back to the Future, a film whose sci-fi comedy charm would make it the highest-grossing film of 1985. Yet the movie landscape of the ’80s was defined by a very different type of comedy film, and studio executives of the time were prone to the same risk aversion that defines Hollywood today. The abundance of rejections that tried to keep Back to the Future from screens underscores the fallibility of studio decision-making, and the film’s ultimate deliverance is a shining example of artists supporting each other.


Why Back To The Future Was Rejected By So Many Movie Studios

Doc and Marty looking surprised in Back to the Future

Back to the Future’s inventive central concept is still one of its biggest strengths, and when the film was being pitched in the ’80s, it was downright revolutionary. Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale were among the first to propose a time travel movie in which time is not immutable, and a character’s actions in the past can influence the present. The co-writers knew they had something special and pitched the idea to numerous producers. According to Bob Gale (via Box Office Mojo), the film was rejected at least 40 times. They pitched it to every major studio, and sometimes to multiple executives at the same studio.

For years, no one was interested in Back to the Future. Columbia Pictures agreed to a development deal but eventually declined to make the film. The studio consensus was that Back to the Future’s tone was too tame. At the time, the comedies that were seeing big numbers were the raunchier type. Studios wanted R-rated movies with an emphasis on sex, like Porky’s, Animal House, and Revenge of the Nerds. Ironically, when the two pitched their apparently “tame” film to Disney, the studio told them “Are you guys out of your minds? […] This is Disney, and you’re giving us a movie about incest!” (via Esquire).

Related: Why Back To The Future Has Aged So Well (When So Many Scenes Haven’t)

Back To The Future’s Studio Feedback Has Aged Very Badly

Back to the Future Lorraine and Marty

It’s hard to fathom so many studios rejecting Back to the Future on the grounds of the suitability of its content. It’s the film’s masterful balance of Spielberg-like wonder and grounded maturity that keeps Back to the Future from falling into risqué squalor or saccharine sentimentality. It’s true that squeaky-clean Disney probably wouldn’t have been the right home for Back to the Future, but when the studio told Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale, “The kid with his mother in the car, that’s horrible!” their squeamish sensitivity to anything even remotely transgressive seemed to blind them to how well the scene is handled.

The feedback from the other major studios was even more misguided. Executives were pushing for more raunchy, R-rated sex comedies, but none of these films can boast the lasting appeal of Back to the Future. Rather, films like Porky’s and Revenge of The Nerds aged horribly. Back to the Future’s humor doesn’t lean on the objectification of women, nor on pranks that disregard consent. While the ’80s sex comedies were considered hilariously daring at the time, their dated elements make them largely unwatchable today.

Related: Michael J. Fox’s Unique Theory On Back to the Future’s Legacy

How Back To The Future Finally Got Made

An image of Marty looking serious in Back To The Future

The only consistent supporter of Back to the Future was Steven Spielberg. The director-producer had loved the script since the beginning, and according to Bob Gale, “He would have made it right away” with Universal. However, he and Robert Zemeckis had made three films in a row with Spielberg prior to Back to the Future, and all three had been major disappointments at the box office. Zemeckis and Gale worried that they were building up a reputation of two people who had to rely on their successful friend Spielberg to get anything made. This changed when Zemeckis’s film Romancing the Stone proved an unexpected box office smash.

With a self-made hit under his belt, Zemeckis could make anything he wanted, so he and Gale were finally comfortable doing Back to the Future with Universal and Spielberg’s newly-founded Amblin Entertainment. However, the film was still vulnerable to misguided studio interference. Famously, Universal executive Sid Sheinberg wanted to change Back to the Future’s title to “Space Man From Pluto” out of a desire to avoid the feeling of a ‘genre’ time-travel movie.” It was Spielberg who found an artful solution by writing back, “Hi Sid, thanks for your most humorous memo.” Sheinberg was too embarrassed to admit he was serious, and Back to the Future was saved once again.

Sources: Box Office Mojo, Esquire