Universal’s Back to the Future Franchise Celebrates 35 Years of Time-Traveling Fun

A trip to the movies in 1985 meant that consumers had to make some serious decisions.

In an era when the home video market was just taking off, a theatrical run for a hit film meant that audiences could see it on the big screen for months. In ‘85, that meant an overlap during which The Goonies, Rocky IV, Commando, The Care Bears Movie, Clue, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, and The Breakfast Club could potentially be screening in one spot — all duking it out for audience dollars. While the year had many classics, Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future (BTTF) captured the crown as its highest-grossing film, spawning two sequels on its way to becoming arguably one of the most celebrated films in the decades since.

The warm reception from audiences was largely due to the fact that the film was a cross-generational portrait of America under the guise of a big-budget, time-travel comedy.

BTTF is, at its core, the story of a family,” says Bob Gale, co-creator, co-writer, and co-producer of the BTTF trilogy. ”Everyone in every culture and in every time wonders, ‘How did my parents meet? What did they do on their first date?’ And the movie dramatizes the amazing revelation we all have when we’re 8 or 9 years old that, ‘Whoa — my grown-up parents really were once awkward kids, just like me.’ These things are universal and transcend time and space.”

Like the stories told through the BTTF trilogy, the fandom has become multigenerational. Beginning with the 25th anniversary a decade ago, every five-year mark is celebrated as a milestone, with each celebration somehow topping the last as fans connect with the films in new and exciting ways.

“This anniversary, fans can expect more — more apparel, more lifestyle products, more toys and collectibles, more books, more fan events, more digital content, and more,” says Shayne Misfud, vice president of franchise management for Universal Brand Development.

Back to the Future Playmobil

German toymaker Playmobil was one of the first to preview its new BTTF collection at New York Comic Con (NYCC) last fall. A full range of figures in the classic Playmobil scale is accompanied by the centerpiece of the collection: the DeLorean Time Machine.

“A special feature of the DeLorean is the gull wings. This opening mechanism is an outstanding developmental achievement in the world of Playmobil,” says Björn Seeger, press officer at Brandstaetter Group, Playmobil’s parent company. “The Flux Capacitor and the car light up to simulate time travel, and there is also a small compartment where fans can insert the plutonium core.”

Additional Playmobil BTTF toys — perhaps the most extensive kid-focused toy line in franchise history — are being showcased at Toy Fair New York (TFNY).

Aside from a few items, such as a Valterra skateboard, a Panini sticker book, and a small trading card set from Kellogg’s cereal, the licensing program for BTTF didn’t really kick into high gear until Back to the Future II (1989) and Back to the Future III (1990) were released. Early collectibles included ride-on vehicles, die-cast DeLorean replicas, and trading cards from Topps.

Hornby Hobbies BTTF
Hornby Hobbies’ Scalextric DeLorean Time Machine Slot Car

Revisiting the Past for the Future

Pop culture licensing allows the exploration of different timelines and opportunities, very much mirroring the BTTF trilogy itself. A new anniversary provides an opportunity for some long-time licensees to revisit the franchise.

The “purveyors of pop culture” at Funko will launch new retail programs surrounding the franchise as the company applies its signature style to the entire BTTF brand.

“Often in movies, the characters will have multiple classic scenes or more than one iconic look. And when there are sequels, this expands the possibilities even more,” explains Sean Wilkinson, senior art director of creative at Funko. “We have done several Marty and Doc Pop! figures. … Not only do we explore the multiple costume looks, but we also pay attention to props or specific moments that might deserve its own figure. As the Pop! line has progressed, we put characters into more dynamic poses, and this can also add to the different versions we create.”

Funko's 2019 NYCC Exclusive Marty McFly Pop! Vinyl
Funko’s 2019 NYCC Exclusive Marty McFly Pop! Vinyl Figure

Several years ago, San Francisco-based maker of pop culture toys and collectibles Super7 released a small assortment of its ReAction Figures with characters from BTTF. This year, the company revisits the franchise for an assortment of toys, accessories, and lifestyle items, including a new, franchise-spanning range of BTTF ReAction figures.

BTTF is one of those iconic movies that changed the landscape of pop culture,” says Brian Flynn, founder of Super7. “It mixed a sense of humor, optimism, and an uncertain coming-of-age journey not only of ourselves, but of our parents as well. In BTTF, you were able to see yourself [as you appeared] both now and then, from kids to adults.”

Plans are in the works for new figures, including Marty in his “Darth Vader from Planet Vulcan” radiation suit, a 2015 Griff Tannen, and new versions of the classic characters as they appeared in the 1885, 1955, and 1985 scenes.


Back to the Theater

For BTTF’s 35th anniversary, Universal Pictures will release an all-new 4K remaster of the 1985 film, complete with a world premiere at the Turner Classic Movies (TCM) Classic Film Festival in Hollywood this April. Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Doc Brown), and Lea Thompson (Lorraine Baines McFly) will attend the screening alongside Gale. Special-event screenings at theaters across the country will follow.

Gale is also helping to bring the story to the theatre stage with Back to the Future the Musical, which premiered this week at the UK’s Manchester Opera House. Following a 12-week run, the production will move to London’s West End. Gale’s first foray into writing for the stage is the book on which the musical production is based.

Back to the Future the Musical is the story of the first movie, but we’ve changed some things for practicality,” Gale says. “Obviously, we can’t do a van chase or a skateboard chase on stage, so we’ve created counterparts for these things that use the stage environment to its best advantage.”

The famed score by Alan Silvestri and songs by Huey Lewis and the News, such as “Back in Time” and “The Power of Love,” have been given a theatrical overhaul, while new musical numbers from Silverstri and Glen Ballard propel the action for a live audience.

“There’s nothing like the excitement an audience gets from watching live singing and dancing,” Gale says. “Of course, there’s plenty of spectacle, too. It wouldn’t be BTTF without a DeLorean and lightning, and there are some new and expanded elements in service of our original story that people are going to enjoy. … This musical truly captures the BTTF spirit!”

Hot Wheels BTTF
Mattel’s Hot Wheels id Back to the Future DeLorean Time Machine

To Be Continued…

Universal’s Misfud says that additional collaborations will continue to be revealed from a variety of licensed partners around the world as the year rolls on. Hot Topic, BoxLunch, Zara, and Rubie’s Costume Co. are just a few of the partners on board.

“Later in the year, [fans can] be on the lookout for the debut of the BTTF trilogy in 4K from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment and celebrations from Universal Parks and Resorts, retail partners, and more,” Misfud says

Still, there’s much to be said about the kids. George and Lorraine had kids. Marty and Jennifer had kids. Even Doc and Clara had kids.

New generations of fans are connecting with those who came before them to keep the lineage alive and propel the BTTF franchise into the future.

Ravensburger Dice Through Time Game
Ravensburger Back to the Future Dice Through Time Game

“Another element that BTTF captured 35 years ago was the ‘nostalgia’ factor,” Gale says. “Parents and kids watched the film, and both had emotional connections to the characters and scenes played out in 1950s and 1980s. Now, here we are more than three decades later, and generations of fans are enjoying that nostalgic trend of ‘everything old is new again’ — referencing iconic fashions, music, that car, and more. In BTTF II, we predicted that by 2015, people would be nostalgic about the ‘80s, and that’s a prediction that came true then and is still true now,” he says.

The connection between kids and parents is a factor that the team at Playmobil was very aware of as the company crafted new toys with a dash of nostalgia. In order to do BTTF right, the company had to hit the cross-generational notes.

“We want to create a lasting play experience for children,” Playmobil’s Seeger says. “By developing new toys based on … Back to the Future, we’re creating the opportunity to bond parents, kids, collectors, and fans. It’s a special way for families to have fun together.”

Gale adds that the lasting appeal of the franchise as a whole is largely connected to a fantasy that audiences still can’t experience in the real world.

“The theory of time travel was a fanciful notion 35 years ago, and it remains so [now]. So having a storyline that focuses on the ‘what if’ of traveling through time and seeing the people and places you know in a new light will always resonate with each new generation that discovers this iconic film franchise.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of the Toy Book. Click here to read more!

About the author

James Zahn

James Zahn

James Zahn, AKA The Rock Father, is Editor-in-Chief of The Toy Book, a Senior Editor at The Toy Insider and The Pop Insider, and Editor of The Toy Report, The Toy Book‘s weekly industry newsletter. As a pop culture and toy industry expert, Zahn has appeared as a panelist and guest at events including Comic-Con International: San Diego (SDCC) Wizard World Chicago, and the ASTRA Marketplace & Academy. Zahn has more than 30 years of experience in the entertainment, retail, and publishing industries, and is frequently called upon to offer expert commentary for publications such as Forbes, Marketwatch, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, USA Today, Reuters, the Washington Post, and more. James has appeared on History Channel’s Modern Marvels, was interviewed by Larry King and Anderson Cooper, and has been seen on Yahoo! Finance, CNN, CNBC, FOX Business, NBC, ABC, CBS, WGN, The CW, and more. Zahn joined the Adventure Media & Events family in 2016, initially serving as a member of the Parent Advisory Board after penning articles for the Netflix Stream Team, Fandango Family, PBS KIDS, Sprout Parents (now Universal Kids), PopSugar, and Chicago Parent. He eventually joined the company full time as a Senior Editor and moved up the ranks to Deputy Editor and Editor-in-Chief.