Back to the Future Day: 6 hit films that were initially rejected by studios

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Jul 3, 2017

Thirty-two years ago today, Michael J. Fox showed us how screwing with the past can create an uncomfortable amount of negative space in photos.

But, like his character Marty McFly, Back to the Future came dangerously close to becoming nothing more than trash-can filler.

We take a look at the circumstances that led to some of sci-fi's greatest hits getting initially rejected by film studios.

Back to the Future (1985)

We all know the classic story where Marty McFly, played by Eric Stolz, goes back in a time machine and helps his dad become a professional boxer.

Wait ... was that how it happened?

In initial drafts, it was. This illustrates the stark changes a script/shoot can undergo as it drudges through the process of ... well, just being..

In the early '80s, Robert Zemeckis had a deal to write for Columbia Pictures. It was a shrewd move on their part, as Zemeckis had a blockbuster idea about a guy who goes back in time to his high school and meets his parents. Zemeckis worked with producer Bob Gale to hammer out a script that, although in the rough draft phases, had much of the magic that ended up in the final production. Everything was in line for a great film ... until Columbia decided they wanted nothing to do with the project.

Still, Zemeckis and Gale believed in their story so much that they began the arduous task of shopping it to studios, rewriting, then shopping it again. It made the rejection rounds several times, eventually being passed on over 40 times. Finally, the duo tapped their friend Steven Spielberg to back the movie.

You may be wondering why they didn't go right to Spielberg in the first place. Gale explained, "Although we'd done our first three pictures with Steven Spielberg, and he loved our Back to the Future script, we didn't want to make it with him at first. We thought we might become known as those guys who only get work because they're pals with Spielberg. What changed was that Bob had a big surprise hit directing Romancing the Stone. After that, he had proved himself, so we figured it would be fine to work with Steven."

So why were film studios so averse to making this film when in retrospect it seemed like a slam dunk? Maybe the pitch started with "So, Marty's in his underwear getting hit on by his mom." We can only speculate, but it's most likely that the reasons they passed are quite similar to the reasons it became such a hit: It redefined several genres. At the time, successful teenage comedies were raunchy (a la Fast Times at Ridgemont High), sci-fi films tended to be either for kids or the uber-nerdy, and romantic stories tended to have the main characters be, you know, the people involved in the romance. Back to the Future just didn't fit into any of the tidy little boxes that would guarantee revenue.

Eventually, the rewrites led to a story that was a little less zany (early drafts had Marty McFly breaking into a nuclear plant to steal plutonium). Even when the script was finally greenlit and shooting began, the radical changes were not quite done. Eric Stolz was cast as Marty. However after over a month of shooting, the comedy just wasn't coming through. The producers really wanted Michael J. Fox; however, he spent his days filming the hit sitcom Family Ties.

Eventually, Fox revealed himself as such a consummate professional that he proved he could do a full day of shooting for Family Ties followed by eight hours of BttF shooting in the evening. (It's actually a perceptual glass-shattering moment to watch BttF and realize how awkwardly shot some scenes are because Michael J. Fox had to be filmed separately from the rest of the cast.)

Budget: $19 million
Domestic Total Gross: $210,609,762

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

In 1960, a young Steven Spielberg invented an imaginary character to cope with his parents' divorce. As a producer, he morphed the character into E.T. What could a studio find rejectable about such a lovely premise?

Well, for starters, the studio had ordered a horror film. In the late '70s / early '80s, sci-fi was just becoming a profitable film genre after years of stagnancy. Columbia Pictures wanted to play it safe with a sequel to the 1977 Spielberg hit about aliens with communication issues, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Although Spielberg wasn't really interested in a sequel, he was disturbed by Universal Pictures cranking out a Jaws sequel without him. Spielberg initially conceived of a horror film starring a nightmarish group of aliens; eventually, he had second thoughts about aliens who executed animals with a single touch as he focused on the one black sheep alien, the sensitive nice-guy who bonded with a human boy. Spielberg decided this was a much better complement to Close Encounters.

When Spielberg got back from making Raiders of the Lost Ark, he set about turning his alien horror film into an alien kids' movie. This pissed off a lot of people, such as the special-effects guru who had spent a whopping $700,000 making horrific alien models. Most notably, it angered the heads of Columbia, who did not want to make "a wimpy Walt Disney movie." (This was before Disney founded Touchstone Pictures specifically for cranking out edgier films.)

Fortunately, Spielberg had plenty of inroads with Universal Studios. They offered to buy E.T. for $1 million and 5% of the film's profits. After the film had proven to be a cash cow, the head of Columbia remarked that their 5% share meant that the company possibly "made more on that picture than we did on any of our films." That's right, even more than Columbia's tastefully-done 1981 film, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning.

Budget: $10.5 million
Domestic Total Gross: $435,110,554

Star Wars (1977)

I get it: A space western with a relatively new director during an era when sci-fi was financial suicide for movie executives. That makes sense as to why George Lucas had so much trouble getting studios to get aboard Star Wars. But there's more to the story than that.

After Lucas screened THX 1138 at Cannes, United Artists approached him for a two-picture deal. This was a brilliant display of foresight followed up by a ridiculously stupid display of not recognizing great films. First they passed on American Graffiti, which was picked up by Universal Studios. Despite American Graffiti becoming a modest hit, United Artists went and passed on Star Wars, too. Keep in mind this was the studio that was busy putting out yet another Pink Panther sequel, so they weren't too interested in films that weren't safe or remotely not bad. Universal also didn't find the success of Graffiti sufficient enough to commit to Star Wars and passed as well.

Lucas decided to keep pushing his idea. He took it to Disney, who also rejected it. At the time, that rejection must have stung ... but it turned out to net him a fortune as Disney bought the franchise in 2012 for $4 billion.

Finally, 20th Century Fox showed interest. Not because they thought Star Wars was anything but sci-fi schlock, but because they wanted to cultivate a relationship with the director whose last film had been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. Star Wars did, in fact, make the shortlist for Best Picture in 1978 but lost to Annie Hall.

Budget: $11 million
Domestic Total Gross: $460,998,007

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Continuing the long tradition of every single one of his films getting repeatedly rejected by producers, George Lucas had trouble getting Indiana Jones' debut off the ground. Lucas first spoke with Steven Spielberg, another veteran of getting rejection notes for eventual blockbusters, in 1977, while the two were on vacation in Hawaii. (The irony is palpable that, when he has good ideas, Lucas' films get rejected ... but no one wanted to reject Howard the Duck.) After Star Wars proved to be an epic fountain of cash for the studio, you'd think that companies would be crawling over each other to greenlight Lucas' next film.

So why weren't they? There are several reasons why Raiders of the Lost Ark was initially rejected by every major studio in Hollywood. First, Lucas wanted to go big and asked for a $20 million budget. This value, worth $75 million in today's dollars, made the film a financial risk. Boosting the perceived risk was the fact that Spielberg's last movie set during WWII, the comedy 1941, was a flop.

Fortunately, Spielberg and Lucas were able to go into the tank and come up with much more cost effective methods for shooting. For starters, the sweeping desert scenes were carefully storyboarded and sometimes even painstakingly diagrammed with miniatures. As it turned out, these arduous procedures to save costs ended up making the film all the more spectacular.

Budget: $18 million
Domestic Total Gross: $248,159,971

The Exorcist (1973)

This hit film about a girl who's allergic to pea soup and gravity was based on a book of the same name, which became a bestseller and landed author William Peter Blatty the job of writing the screenplay. Everything came together and the film became the first horror flick to garner a Best Picture Oscar nomination.

However, things started out as rocky as Ellen Burstyn's post-filming spinal X-rays. Before the book became a bestseller, there was practically no chance of getting a major studio to film a tween voiding the warranty of a cross. And the book started as anything but a bestseller. Despite a nationwide tour, many distributors returned stacks of copies for reasons ranging from utter revulsion to simply low sales. Needless to say, Hollywood studios were lukewarm on Blatty's spec script, prompting him to quip, "I could paper the walls of my bathroom with rejection slips."

A trial interview for a potential appearance on the popular Dick Cavett Show went poorly, as Cavett did not enjoy discussing paranormal events. Had things stood, the Exorcist would have most likely been relegated to the dusty back shelves of used bookstores. However, a last-minute cancellation got Blatty on to Dick Cavett for a five-minute spot. This turned into 45 minutes after another scheduled guest showed up inebriated.

After Blatty expounded on his novel on national TV for three-quarters of an hour, American readers finally took notice and the book shot to the top of the bestsellers list. Once that happened, everything else fell neatly into place for the story's conversion to the big screen and ruined the chances for anyone to get an impartial Ouija board experience for years.

Budget: $12 million
Domestic Total Gross: $232,906,145

Twilight (2008)

All right, it might be a little more believable that Twilight was rejected over a dozen times. After all, this is a book which contains the lines "I saw several things simultaneously" and "The next day was better ... and worse." Despite imperfect prose, the book quickly became a bestseller, yet studios were still frosty to the notion of making it into a film.

That the novel was outrageously popular makes it even more peculiar that a movie version had trouble getting made. First Paramount's MTV bought the rights, but there were script issues. Eventual Twilight producer Mark Morgan explained, "One of their drafts literally had a Korean FBI agent who was hunting and tracking vampires across the coast. There was SWAT in the trees and literally it was like, 'Red leader, red leader 1' and the vampires were picking them out of the woods. It would have been a different movie." (I agree that's totally ridiculous ... Hollywood would never cast a Korean lead.) Morgan also mentioned that he couldn't get a bite from several different studios to which he shopped the idea of a Twilight film.

It took me a while to understand a mindset that would make a studio executive shy away from "sexy film about teenage werewolves and vampires," but then I got sober and I kind of hate everything so now I can see it. There are plenty of books that top the bestseller lists and not all of them get made into hit movies (still waiting for that big screen adaptation of Goodnight Moon). Plus the book itself was not highly rated and there is a high likelihood that the vampire/werewolf schtick would end up looking kind of silly.

Still, if Paramount had done a bit more research, they might have discovered the huge, fervent female fan base that propelled the Twilight film series to make over three billion dollars.

Budget: $37 million
Domestic Total Gross: $192,769,854