Why Disney Turned Down Making ‘Back to the Future’

When Back to the Future came out on July 3, 1985, little did anyone know that it was going to change, well, the future of cinema. Michael J. Fox may have already been a TV star on Family Ties, but he wasn’t a movie star quite yet. Robert Zemeckis was an up-and-coming director in Hollywood, but he’d yet to become the man who would go on to create so many iconic films. Back to the Future changed their lives, and the lives of everyone involved, when it ended the year as the highest-grossing film. Its success led to two beloved sequels, creating a franchise that has stood the test of time. As popular as Back to the Future is, the film almost didn’t happen. Zemeckis and company got told no right and left by every studio they encountered. Desperate, they went to Disney but were quickly rejected by a studio who was disgusted by the film’s plot. If Disney had understood the film’s direction and signed on, who knows how the film would have turned out.

RELATED: ‘Back to the Future’ Cast Has Mixed Feelings on a Potential Reboot

How Did ‘Back to the Future’ Get Made?

Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) and Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) in 'Back to the Future'
Image via Universal Pictures

Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter Bob Gale met at USC in 1971. At the time they were both writers, and the pair started working together in their senior year of college, collaborating on TV shows like Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Their big break came from co-writing Steven Spielberg‘s 1979 film, 1941. Starring Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, the film was a surprising flop in theaters. The guy who made Jaws wasn’t invincible. Zemeckis and Gale survived this embarrassment and went on to make Used Cars in 1980 with Kurt Russell, with Spielberg acting as an executive producer.

That same year, Zemeckis and Gale decided to write a time-travel movie. They were confident with their script and went straight to Columbia, where studio head Frank Price had been a big fan of Used Cars. Price understood the concept but the pitch went nowhere. Gale and Zemeckis then went to an astonishing forty different studios, where they were told no every single time. Why? Gale explained what happened to Esquire in 2015. It was the mid-’80s. Studios were looking for sex comedies like Porky’s. Back to the Future didn’t have that. It was PG. It was wholesome. “It was too nice,” Gale was told. And time travel movies were a thing of the past. That was something from the ’50s and ’60s sci-fi movies, not what an ’80s crowd would want.

Why Did Disney Turn Down ‘Back to the Future’?

Lorraine (Lea Thompson) and Marty (Michael J. Fox) in 'Back to the Future'
Image via Universal Pictures

Several times during those forty rejections, Gale and Zemeckis were told, “Why don’t you take it to Disney?” As Gale told CNN in 2010 for Back to the Future‘s 25th anniversary, “Well, we heard that so many times that Bob and I thought one day, ‘what the hell, let’s take it to Disney.’ This was before Michael Eisner went in and reinvented it. This was the last vestiges of the old Disney family regime. We went in to meet with an executive and he says, ‘Are you guys nuts? Are you insane? We can’t make a movie like this. You’ve got the kid and the mother in his car! It’s incest — this is Disney. It’s too dirty for us!'”

These days a movie like that would totally be greenlit by Disney. Heck, they’re the ones behind Deadpool 3. But the 1980s were a very different time for the mouse. They were still solely about family films and cartoons. A movie where a woman falls in love with her son was too risqué for them. It also shows that the Disney exec totally misunderstood what the movie was about. The idea for Back to the Future came from Gale. He told Esquire that one day he was looking at his father’s old yearbooks and saw that he had been the President of his class. That made Gale think, “I wondered whether I would have been friends with my dad in high school.” With this idea, Back to the Future was born.

Yes, there is more to it than that. You can’t just have a guy go back in time and meet his dad. That’s an interesting premise, a nice starting off point, but then what? What’s the craziest thing that could happen? What if you met your mother and she fell in love with you?! Lorraine’s (Lea Thompson) love for Marty (Michael J. Fox) is lustful, with her checking him out in his underwear, and hoping to make out with him in a parked car, but the film itself is not sexual. The most shocking thing Lorraine ever does is smoke and drink. Her love for Marty is misplaced. We know this. She’s in such awe of this kid because it’s her son. She can’t know that though. Only when she kisses Marty does it feel wrong to her.

Now, if Lorraine kissed Marty and was into it, or worse, if Marty liked it, then you would have a problem. The comedy comes from how incredibly uncomfortable Marty is, and then we have an acceptable resolution to the conflict. Lorraine kisses Marty and she is disgusted by it. She immediately pulls away. “I don’t know what it is,” she tells him, “but when I kiss you, it’s like I’m kissing my brother.” She’s not far off. After that, she wants nothing to do with him romantically. Gale says of the scene, “We pushed that thing as far as we could go. We kept the audience on edge, but we did not cross that line. We realized the person who had to say this wasn’t right was Marty’s mother.”

How Did Steven Spielberg Save ‘Back to the Future’?

Michael J. Fox as Marty McFly in Back to the Future
Image via Universal Pictures

With forty studios rejecting Back to the Future because it didn’t go far enough and Disney saying no because they thought it went too far, the film could have been dead before it even started. They then found a savior in Steven Spielberg, Gale, and Zemeckis’ longtime friend. 1941 may have bombed, but Spielberg recovered quite nicely. In 1981, he made Raiders of the Lost Ark. The next year he followed that up with the hugely popular E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Spielberg was the king of Hollywood, and not just from directing. He was an influential producer too. His fingerprints are all over Tobe Hooper‘s Poltergeist, and the year before Back to the Future, his creative direction turned Joe Dante‘s Gremlins into something completely different (and better) from what it was first meant to be.

Gale told CNN in 2010, “We wrote two official drafts, and it was the second that we took around to everybody. One person who was very interested in that draft was Steven Spielberg. We had made a few movies with him, and they were all considered flops. We told Steven that if we make the movie with you and it’s a flop, we’ll probably never work in this town again, because we’ll be the guys whose movies get made because of their friend, Steven Spielberg.” Zemeckis found success on his own directing Romancing the Stone. He wasn’t a failure anymore after that. “Suddenly everybody and his uncle wants to make Bob’s next movie. The movie Bob wants to make is Back to the Future. Being the loyal guy he is, he says, let’s go back and give it to the guy who wanted to make it in the first place, Steven. We were the first non-Spielberg-directed movie to be made at his new company at Universal, Amblin Entertainment.”

The rest is history. Two more very successful films happened after that and Michael J. Fox became the biggest star in the world. Robert Zemeckis went on to direct instant classics like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Forrest Gump. Gale wrote those two Back to the Future sequels. All of that happened because Spielberg said yes when everyone else said no. You have to wonder whatever happened to that poor Disney exec. Saying no to Back to the Future was the biggest mistake of his career.

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