It was a project that had been rejected by virtually every major studio. The first star approached for the leading role had to turn it down. The actor who did take the role was deemed unsuitable for it by the director and replaced, resulting in the film going overbudget and threatening its schedule release date of Summer 1985. One of these setbacks could doom a project. But all of them? Surely no project could overcome these hurdles to become one of the biggest blockbusters in movie history. Back to the Future, not only overcame these hurdles, it is still fondly remembered as one of the most beloved films of all time.
It wasn’t an easy project to sell. One quick glance at the script was all anyone needed to see that this would be a hugely expensive undertaking. Making the film would be a very expensive risk. Walt Disney Productions, which was in desperate need of a hit at the time, considered it, but they didn’t like the subplot in which lead character would get wooed by his own mother back in 1955.
Robert Zemeckis and his co-writer Bob Gale had been shopping the film around since 1980. Columbia Pictures considered making it and signed a deal with the pair to complete the script and present it to them. After reading the script and seeing the presentation, Columbia rejected it, putting the project in “turnaround”, which is a process in which a studio declares a the project as a loss on its tax returns. This means that the studio can’t ever legally produce the film under tax laws and makes it easier to sell the project elsewhere. Columbia then tried to get the guys to take the film to Disney, which they initially declined to do, shopping it around town elsewhere. With the explosion of teen sex comedies in the early 1980’s, the major studios felt that the film was not raunchy enough and that its special effects budgets would be too big. As noted above, Disney had opposite reasons for turning the project down.
In 1984, however, Robert Zemeckis’ fortunes would change. Romancing the Stone, which he would direct for Twentieth Century Fox would be a huge hit, giving Zemeckis the pull he needed to get his favored projects made. Projects like Back to the Future. Having brought Stephen Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment onto the project, Back to the Future was now on the fast track. Amblin Entertainment was based on the Universal Lot, but could take its projects anywhere. Universal was not initially interested in Back to the Future, but it did want to keep Spielberg happy. It didn’t, however, want to pay Columbia for the script. A fortuitous event would allow Universal to get the script for free.
John Cassavetes was directing a film for Columbia called Big Trouble, which studio lawyers felt had a plot too close to Universal’s Double Indemnity. If the studio wanted to release the film, it would need to make a deal with Universal to obtain a license to use Double Indemnity or else it wouldn’t clear legal. A deal was arranged to trade the rights for Double Indemnity for the Back to the Future script. If Zemeckis thought there were only blue skies ahead, he would be mistaken. The torturous path the film followed to get to this point would look tame in comparison to what was ahead.