Blast From The Past On ‘Back To The Future’: How Frank Price Rescued Robert Zemeckis’ Classic From Obscurity

EXCLUSIVE: The hoopla behind Back To The Future Day 30 years after the first of the film’s trilogy was released seems remarkable if you consider the first Back To The Future movie had to be rescued from the script vault at Columbia Pictures before being transformed by Universal Pictures into a juggernaut whose first test screening was so raucous that — as Zemeckis described it to Deadline last month — “we had to pull the audience off the ceiling.”

It’s always intriguing to hear how a movie like Home Alone got kicked to the curb by Warner Bros because John Hughes was being difficult and the studio wouldn’t give him the extra couple million dollars he felt the budget needed (Fox head Joe Roth was happy to), or when Silence of the Lambs, turned down by everybody, finally sold to Gene Hackman to direct and play Hannibal Lecter, only to be bought out by Orion when Hackman’s daughter read the Thomas Harris book and begged her dad not to go near it. Awhile back I’d heard the story of Back to the Future‘s rescue and the horse trading that made it possible. The film’s anniversary seemed a good occasion to track down the film’s champion, Price, and see what really happened. Back then, Price had recently moved from running Columbia to Universal, but he didn’t forget about the gem script by Zemeckis and Bob Gale that he left behind. He just didn’t imagine he’d ever get a shot at the time travel tale.

While Hollywood is replete with examples of William Goldman’s adage that nobody knows anything, it’s embarrassing for ex-executives who come out on the losing end, even decades later. Here, that would be Guy McElwaine, who went from being one of Hollywood’s biggest agents to Columbia’s studio chief after Price left. I want to make it clear that Price–who famously wore the goat horns for putting E.T. in turnaround at Columbia and for making Howard the Duck at Universal–only agreed to talk about this because his old friend McElwaine passed away in 2008.

Price got a call from his pal McElwaine one day, and the latter studio chief was in a panic. He had green lit Big Trouble, a film that Andy Bergman had written and was set to direct. McElwaine had just been told that the movie so closely followed the plot of Double Indemnity that Columbia’s legal department said there was no way the movie should go forward without a one-time license from the rights holders of the 1944 Billy Wilder film. Since that was a pre-1948 Paramount film, it meant that it was part of a bunch of films that Universal had bought in the mid-1950s, mainly to use as TV titles. Price picks up the story from here.

zemeckis gale“Zemeckis and Gale pitched it to me at Columbia,” Price recalled. “I made a deal and they wrote a script and then I left when Coca Cola took over. I wound up as head of movies at Universal and when Guy took over at Columbia, he put that script on the shelf and was doing nothing with it. Now, I knew that Steven Spielberg had gotten interested in Back to the Future, and I was trying to figure out how to get it out of Columbia. Fate played the biggest role. I got a call from a desperate McElwaine, saying I had to do him a favor. He told me that his lawyers had just told him that his film was in big trouble, a week away from starting production. ‘You’ve got to give me a license for it,’ he said. At that point, I didn’t want to reveal how much I wanted Back to the Future, so I said, let me think about it and we’ll speak tomorrow. I gave him the license. And then I said, ‘oh, by the way, there are a couple scripts I liked that you’re doing nothing with that I’d love to have.’ I didn’t make it quid pro quo, I just asked, and I don’t remember what the other script was. And we made a deal. He got the license for Double Indemnity, and I got the one I wanted.”

It didn’t work out well for McElwaine. He fired Bergman about a week into production (Bergman pulled his name off his script and used the pseudonym Warren Bogle). McElwaine hired one of his buddies, John Cassavetes, as his replacement. While an indie icon, Cassavetes wasn’t strongly suited to the studio film, and it was a flop. Back to the Future was a smash that turned into a trilogy, cemented Zemeckis as a superstar director, launched Michael J. Fox as a movie star, and became a billion dollar property and a long running theme park ride for Universal.

I’ve always wondered what it’s like when you come out the clear winner in such horse trading, and you see the other person across the room at the Grill. “Guy and I were friends, and we never talked about it,” Price said. “In fact, I never mentioned it to anybody, and I wouldn’t be talking about it with you, if he was alive. I don’t think you ever really know something is going to be a blockbuster, until you show it to an audience and they tell you. My approach in making movies was always to start with something I found exciting and then ask myself, how much can I lose? What’s the downside? I remember when Sydney Pollack was going to make Out of Africa, and we could have gone two ways with two different budgets.

“One was with Jeremy Irons at $17 million, and if we went with Robert Redford, it was $27 million,” Price said. “He said, which way do we go?” I thought, I can’t depend on how the picture turns out, even though Sydney was such a great director. If the $17 million Irons picture didn’t work, that would get me in trouble, but with Redford at $10 million more, the performance in ancillary markets was insured, no matter how it turned out. So the safest bet was Redford. It’s hard to do it any other way because there are so many variables, like if you are making a romance and the chemistry isn’t there between the leading woman and man. You’re dead, and that is very hard to predict in advance. So you cover your downside and if you have something, who knows what the upside will be. I remember when Groundhog Day was turned down by everybody, when Harold Ramis came to see me after he’d come from Warner Bros, where they turned him down. They just didn’t see it. Harold had a rewrite in mind which I paid for. We decided to go after Bill Murray or Chevy Chase, and Murray said yes.”

The landscape is filled with such stories, ones that make Universal’s rescue of the orphaned New Line property Straight Outta Compton seem small. When Ned Tanen ran Universal Pictures, he and the legendary team of Lew Wasserman and Sid Sheinberg didn’t at all like American Graffiti, even after George Lucas shot it. So they had no problem casting out his detailed treatment for this science fiction picture he wanted to make called Star Wars. William Friedkin told Deadline recently that he, Francis Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich could have bought that movie when they ran The Directors Company, funded by Paramount Pictures. “Because of Francis’ relationship with George Lucas, we were offered Star Wars,” Friedkin said. “It was more than we had the right to spend in our company, but both Peter and I hated the script. We didn’t see it. Francis did. But we passed on Star Wars! Lucas gave it to Francis because everybody else had passed. Lucas’ agent, Jeff Berg, finally got Fox to say yes. Then, he asked for a little bit more money for George because the film was taking longer and George hadn’t gotten a large fee.  Instead of Fox giving him a few dollars more, Berg got for him the remake rights, the sequel rights and all of the merchandise. That’s how much that studio believed in Star Wars.”

That decision came back to haunt Friedkin, whose 1977 passion project, Sorcerer, was released while movie audiences cared about nothing else but Star Wars, and his film failed to find an audience.

Even though Price will always be remembered for the Howard the Duck decision–Variety announced his Universal exit with the headline Duck Cooks Price’s Goose–he’s sanguine about it now, as he spends his days doing philanthropic work in education. “Somebody once told me that if you’re not failing, you’re not trying hard enough,” Price said. “We looked at the downside of E.T., and the rich deal was a problem for Columbia. I didn’t want to lose the project, but it turned out to be a very profitable decision for us because we risked no money and got a percentage of the gross. As for Howard the Duck, I bet on George Lucas, and how many times did that turn out to be the wrong decision?”

Price still remembers feeling pretty good about himself when Back to the Future had its famed first test screening in San Jose. “You just don’t get test scores like that film got,” he recalled. “Triple A plus, and the love of everyone in that theater. I still remember the feeling when we put that film in front of an audience, which is when you really know.”

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