Despite the onslaught of automatic weapons, grenades, and political corruption, Rambo’s biggest problem in 1985 turned out to be a scrawny kid in a DeLorean.
Back to the Future was that summer’s biggest hit, earning $210.6 million and knocking Sylvester Stallone’s well-oiled deltoids off of his predicted perch at the box office. Few expected Back to the Future to perform so well, but Marty McFly’s success was just one of several surprises coming out of that year's summer movie season. Check out these 15 facts about a failed return to Oz, a geriatric Bond, and why a bunch of high school kids had such a problem with The Goonies.
1. Movies Stuck Around All Summer.
In today’s rush to have a major opening weekend before the next big movie rolls up, it’s hard to imagine any one film dominating theaters for long. But that’s exactly what Back to the Future did, arriving in cinemas on July 3, 1985 and taking the number one spot for a total of 11 weeks. Only the late July debut of National Lampoon’s European Vacation kept McFly from 12 straight weekends of victory.
2. Movie re-releases were big.
Sequel fatigue has been setting in for years, with critics complaining that there are too many derivative works and not enough original material. But there was a time when studios would literally—not figuratively—rehash old titles by reissuing them. The summer months of 1985 saw the re-releases of Ghostbusters, Gremlins, and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, with E.T. earning roughly $40 million in additional revenue—more than many first-run movies that year.
3. Disney Was Battered By the Care Bears.
After five years of production and a reported $40 million price tag—at the time, the most expensive animated movie ever—The Black Cauldron was expected to reverse the course of underperforming Disney releases. Instead, it was a huge flop, earning less than half of its budget back and even getting out-hustled by the substantially less expensive The Care Bears Movie.
4. Disney Also Paid Out the Nose for the Ruby Slippers.
Disney’s Return to Oz was expected to cash in on the brand equity of L. Frank Baum’s book series, which was last seen onscreen in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz. That film, however, made such an impression with its Technicolor portrayal of Dorothy and her travels that the more faithful adaptation turned out to be too intense for kids. The film bombed: The New York Times declared it a “catastrophe,” and Disney had to pay for the privilege. Even though Baum’s books were in the public domain, the Ruby Slippers were not. They had to be licensed from MGM in order to be used.
5. Explorers Was Supposed To Be the Breakout Hit.
When has Entertainment Tonight ever lied to us? In their summer movie preview, box offic prognosticators figured that Paramount’s Explorers, about kids that build their own spaceship, would rake in the dough. Why? Mostly because shooting children into orbit seemed like a can’t-miss proposition, and because director Joe Dante was also responsible for 1984’s Gremlins. But Explorers, which starred River Phoenix and Ethan Hawke, was rushed to meet its July release date, frustrating Dante and resulting in an uneven film that didn’t get much attention.
6. Michael J. Fox Bumped Himself Off.
Prior to shooting Back to the Future, Fox had finished Teen Wolf, an amiable if not-quite-classic comedy about a basketball-playing werewolf. Had it not been for Back to the Future’s massive success, it’s hard to know what audiences would have made of the film. But when it premiered in August, Fox had generated so much goodwill that it opened in second place, giving the actor both top slots. (Doing press for Teen Wolf, Fox told Starlog he disliked the title and was “chagrined” when the studio insisted on it.)
7. Arnold Schwarzenegger Starred As a Non-Conan Conan.
Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed to shoot a cameo role in Red Sonja, producer Dino De Laurentiis’s attempt to feminize the sword-and-sorcery genre the two men had popularized with the Conan movies. Owing to legal reasons, Arnold’s character could not be named Conan, and the actor was assured that the role would be a surprise for viewers. But filming dragged on and Schwarzenegger’s part kept growing; when Red Sonja began its marketing efforts, Arnold was featured prominently on the poster and in advertising. He was so incensed at De Laurentiis for tricking him into a script he felt was “trash” that he refused to promote the film.
8. Weird Science Won the Three-Way Kid Genius Stakes.
In a seven-day span, three movies were released that featured teenagers using their considerable intellects to get themselves into and out of trouble: Weird Science, My Science Project, and Real Genius. Critics thought the studios were sabotaging themselves and creating consumer confusion. In the end, Weird Science—a John Hughes-scripted film about two geeks who create their ideal woman with a computer program—was weird enough to stand out, earning a respectable $23.8 million.
9. James Bond Became the Butt of Jokes.
A View to a Kill marked the seventh time Roger Moore portrayed suave super-spy James Bond, but the fact that Moore was nearly 60 years old at the time did not go unnoticed. Moore himself was disturbed to find out he was older than his co-star’s mother, and former Bond Sean Connery chimed in to say that the character should be no older than 35. Moore resigned his post later that year.
10. The Goonies Lacked “Realism.”
The Los Angeles Times had the novel idea of gathering eight high school journalism students to quiz them on their interest in the upcoming summer film slate. Among their criticisms: The Goonies looked to be “fairly unrealistic,” with one concerned the title might be confused with Ghoulies or Gremlins; Clint Eastwood’s Western Pale Rider was a no-go since Eastwood is “not good-looking”; Chevy Chase, set to star in Fletch, reminded one of a “white Eddie Murphy.” The crew voted Explorers as the film they’d most like to see. Right on the money, kids.
11. It Was a John Candy Kind of Summer.
Beloved comedian John Candy starred in a whopping four films between Memorial Day and Labor Day: Summer Rental, Volunteers, Brewster’s Millions, and a cameo in Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird. All of them performed well, except for Jim Henson’s effort: despite getting positive reviews, no one particularly cared to pay to see Big Bird when he was on television for free.
12. A Drive-In Theater Got the Twister Treatment.
On May 31, 1985, the Spotlight 88 Drive-In Theater in Beaver County, Pennsylvania was pulverized by an F-4 tornado. With business already in decline, the owners decided to convert it into a flea market. While it was being repaired, someone spray-painted a sign on the marquee: “Now Playing: Gone With the Wind.”
13. Siskel and Ebert Were Pretty Disappointed.
Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were so peeved at 1985's offerings that the duo assembled an entire show about the worst of the worst. Siskel called it “one of the dullest, most juvenile, most homogenized summer movie seasons in recent memory.” Among their targets: The Bride, with Sting and Jennifer Beals as the bride of Frankenstein; the spy satire The Man With One Red Shoe, starring Tom Hanks; and Return to Oz, which Ebert declared “so depressing ... it was some kind of torture for me to sit through it.”
14. A lot of notable actors made their film debuts that summer.
Moviegoers were introduced to a lot of unfamiliar faces in the summer of 1985. Ethan Hawke starred in the pummeled Explorers; Dolph Lundgren made a fleeting appearance as a henchman in A View to a Kill before his breakout role as Ivan Drago in Rocky IV later that year; and Christian Slater had a prominent part alongside Helen Slater (no relation) in The Legend of Billie Jean. Slater was just 15 years old at the time.