Back to the Future

Back to the Future

On Oct. 26, 1985, at some point after 1 a.m., a group of Libyan terrorists attacked Doctor Emmett Brown in the parking lot of the Twin Pines Mall in Hill Valley, California. His teenage companion escaped in a heavily modified DeLorean DMC-12 that was seemingly destroyed in an electrical disaster, leaving behind only its license plate and a trail of flames.

Sure, that might sound pretty heavy, but as audiences know, things ended up turning out alright for Doc and his young friend, Marty McFly. Back to the Future (BTTF) hit theaters in the summer of ‘85, immediately winning audiences as it went on to become the highest-grossing film of the year. 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.

Back to the Future is one of those iconic movies that changed the landscape of pop culture,” says Brian Flynn, founder of Super7, the San Francisco-based maker of pop culture toys and collectibles. “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 Back to the Future, you were able to see yourself [as you appeared] both now and then, from kids to adults.”

Proving that culture is a cyclical affair, audiences in the 1980s were enamored with the 1950s — a decade that was considered to be nostalgic at the time. As Robert Zemeckis’ BTTF franchise celebrates its 35th anniversary this year, modern audiences are nostalgic for the ’80s, with series such as Stranger Things and The Goldbergs scratching that retro itch.

“An element that BTTF captured 35 years ago was the ‘nostalgia’ factor,” says Bob Gale, co-creator, co-writer, and co-producer of the BTTF trilogy. “Parents and kids watched the film and both had emotional connections to the characters and scenes played out in the 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 BTTF2, 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.”

Scalextric BTTF DeLorean
Hornby Hobbies’ Scalextric Back to the Future DeLorean Time Machine Slot Car

“As a teenager, I thought BTTF was great,” Flynn says. “I loved the scene with Marty in the mask with the Walkman doing his ‘Darth Vader’ voice — it was a hilarious crossing of the streams (another ‘80s reference!) of pop culture that was tongue-in-cheek fun, just like the rest of the movie.”

Like the stories told through the BTTF trilogy, the fandom has evolved to 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.

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

Ravensburger Dice Through Time
Ravensburger’s Back to the Future Dice Through Time Game will hit stores this summer.

For BTTF’s 35th anniversary, Universal Pictures will celebrate by releasing 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 Bob Gale. Special event screenings at theaters across the country will follow, and Universal Studios Home Entertainment will issue the entire trilogy in 4K later this year.

Gale is also helping to bring the story to the stage, with Back to the Future the Musical making its debut with a 12-week run at the UK’s Manchester Opera House before moving to London’s West End. Gale’s first foray into writing for the stage is the book on which the musical 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 (producer of Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill album) will 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!”

6-inch scale Playmobil Back to the Future prototypes on display at Playmobil’s NYCC booth last October

German toymaker Playmobil is leading the charge on the toys and collectibles front. The company previewed its BTTF collection at New York Comic Con last fall. A full range of figures in the classic Playmobil scale are accompanied by the centerpiece of the collection: the DeLorean Time Machine with Marty and Doc figures.

“A special feature of the DeLorean is the gull-wings,” says Björn Seeger, press officer at Brandstaetter Group, Playmobil’s parent company. “This opening mechanism is an outstanding developmental achievement in the world of Playmobil. 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 power core.”

Funko is also on board for the celebration. The “purveyors of pop culture” are revisiting the BTTF license for the first time in a few years, giving the company a chance to give things a fresh look.

“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 their own figure. As the Pop! line has progressed, we put characters into more dynamic poses, and this can also add to the different versions that we create.”

Funko Games BTTF
Funko Games will release a new Back to the Future game later this year.

With licensing and pop culture, the back and forth creates different timelines and opportunities, very much mirroring the BTTF trilogy itself.

“As Super7 has exploded in growth over the last couple of years, we are constantly looking both backward and forward for inspiration in our products,” Flynn says. “The BTTF franchise does exactly the same thing through the story of Marty, Doc Brown, and Biff.”

Several years ago, Super7 released a small assortment of its ReAction Figures with characters from BTTF. This year, the company is revisiting the franchise for an assortment of toys, accessories, and lifestyle items, including a franchise-spanning new range of BTTF ReAction figures. 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 1885, 1955, and 1985.

Hot Wheels id BTTF
The Hot Wheels id Back to the Future DeLorean Time Machine allows collectors to track its stats using a companion app.

As the year rolls on, longtime fans and collectors will be well-served as new collaborations debut from the likes of Hot Topic, Box Lunch, Zara, Rubie’s Costume Co., and more. Still, there’s much to be said about the kids. George and Lorraine had kids. Marty had kids. Even Doc had kids.

Borrowing a phrase from Whitney Houston’s 1985 hit, “The Greatest Love of All,” “children are the future” of the BTTF franchise. New generations of fans are connecting with those who came before them to keep the lineage alive. It’s a factor that Playmobil is very much aware of and actively works to embrace.

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

In the end, Gale says that part of the lasting appeal of the franchise is rooted in the fact that “BTTF is, at its core, the story of a family.”

This article was originally published in the Pop Insider’s Winter 2020 Issue No. 6. Click here to read more!

Photos: the Pop Insider, Universal Pictures, Funko Games, Ravensburger, Hornby Hobbies, Playmobil

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.