The third film in the Back to the Future trilogy was released 31 years ago – and there is no prospect of a follow-up.
Unlike similar properties such as Ghostbusters and Star Wars, which have been rebooted frequently over the past three decades, Back to the Future’s cultural footprint relies solely on the legacy of those films, as well as ancillary activity such as an animated series, video games and fan convention appearances by cast and crew.
Yet interest in the films, about a time-travelling teenager played by Michael J Fox, is currently at an unprecedented level.
In 2014, a Secret Cinema screening of the film, involving the transformation of a brownfield site near west London’s Westfield shopping centre to Hill Valley 1955 – to which Fox’s character travels and accidentally disrupts the meeting of his own parents – sold about 80,000 tickets. It was the first major hit for the immersion events brand, which was bought in September this year for $100m.
A musical based on the first film, which opened in the West End last year, won the Olivier award for best new musical and has been seen by more than half a million people so far in London. A Broadway transfer is planned for next summer.
That production was written by Bob Gale, who co-wrote the first film and wrote the screenplays for the second and third films, and was sanctioned by the franchise’s creative team. The Secret Cinema show was developed with Universal. But spaces have also opened up for unofficial capitalisation.
Last Saturday an exhibition of movie memorabilia from the films opened in a concrete basement in Camden, London. Back in Time Exhibition: a Tribute to Back to the Future – the title’s font as careful not to infringe copyright as its wording – showcases the property of Andrea Sandrone, an Italian superfan, who owns the largest private collection of memorabilia in Europe.
There are 70 items in total: scripts and costumes, props and posters. From the first film: the radiation suit worn by Marty McFly (Fox) and the shirt sported by Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) in the climactic clocktower scene. From the second, set in futuristic 2015, hoverboards, self-lacing Nikes, self-drying jackets and embossed matchbooks from Biffco Enterprises – the lurid corporation owned by series baddie Biff Tannen, a character inspired by Donald Trump.
And from the third film, set in the old west of 1885, guns, newspapers and a pie tin which “invents” the Frisbee. The exhibition’s climax is a DeLorean time machine, salvaged from a Universal Studios theme park ride, in which fans can sit for a photo; the exhibition’s layout is constructed to be as selfie-friendly as possible.
Back to the Future was the first film Sandrone saw in the cinema, aged 12, and it struck him “like a bolt of lightning”. He was inspired to follow a career in physics and, although has yet to achieve his original goal of inventing time travel, made sufficient profits through electrical engineering firm Microtech System to start a Back to the Future collection at the turn of the century.
Sandrone spent an estimated €80,000 and now estimates the value of the collection at $2m. This is a modest assessment; a hoverboard similar to that on display sold in May for £250,000.
Adult tickets for the exhibition, run by an Italian start-up called Next, are £21. The company anticipates 50,000 visitors by February, mostly tourists visiting London but also series devotees who may travel a considerable distance.
“These films have soul,” says Sandrone, asked to explain their enduring allure. “Once Disney bought the Star Wars franchise it became only a machine. Many films today exist only to make money.”
The decision to not expand the cinematic canon of Back to the Future was, he believes, crucial to the preservation of its purity.
A poll conducted in 2018 found that 71% of cinema audiences wanted a fourth Back to the Future film; considerably more than those eager for further followups to Indiana Jones and Toy Story – which were greenlit.
But Gale has said such a project would be “like selling your kids into prostitution” – and that it would require the participation of Michael J Fox; now impossible because of the effects of the Parkinson’s disease from which he suffers.
Ten days ago, picking up an honorary Oscar in Hollywood, Fox spoke of the films as an indisputable career highlight.
Speaking to the Guardian, Gale credited the continued resonance of the films to “a universal human curiosity which transcends time periods and different cultures: how did my parents meet? What did they do on their first date? What were they like when they were kids?”
Gale compares this simplicity to that of a work such as Romeo and Juliet, whose basic premise is: “My parents don’t want me hanging out with that person, but I’m going to do what I want.” Four hundred years later it still resonates!”
For Andrew Shail, co-author of a BFI study of the film, the high level of retrospective revision built into the original trilogy is also responsible for its cultural longevity.
“The implied viewer of the three films knows many things that the characters in the films don’t (because most of the characters are from the historical past), and in stressing this difference, the films implicitly and repeatedly put its arm around the viewer and says: ‘Look at what we know that they don’t – we’re in on this joke together, aren’t we?’
“Thus, for the vast majority of viewers, a memory of seeing these films is a warm memory of a very personal narrative process.”
The timing of those original films is also key, thinks Shail. “The tent-pole films of the 1980s, including Back to the Future, were mostly aimed at young teenagers (hence its PG rating).
“So those people who saw them in cinemas in the 1980s, on VHS tapes in the ensuing years and on television when it was first broadcast are still alive, still connected to popular culture, and even influential in decisions about things like exhibitions of film artefacts.”