Times Staff Writer

Sidney Sheinberg saw a movie he really liked a few days ago, and because he did, a lot of people are working overtime at Universal Studios.

The movie was “Back to the Future,” the second of two summer movies from Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment (the first was “The Goonies”), and, if the moviegoing public likes it as much as Sheinberg anticipates, the late hours could be worth more than $40 million in additional box-office revenue.

“Maybe I’ll be a fool,” says Sheinberg, president and chief executive officer of MCA Inc., which owns Universal Pictures, “but I think it’s the most commercial movie since ‘E.T.’ . . . we have the potential to catch lightning in the bottle.”

You’ve got to move fast to catch that stuff, and Universal is. The day after director Robert Zemeckis (“Romancing the Stone”) showed the studio his rough cut of “Back to the Future,” a science fantasy comedy about a teen-ager who travels 30 years into the past to have an adventure with his parents, the decision was made to advance its opening date from July 19 to July 3. That’s 16 extra days of prime box- office season, or to look at it as Universal surely does (16 days times 1,200 theaters times five shows a day), nearly 100,000 additional summer showings.


By moving the picture up, Universal also hopes to beat the second-class stigma that attaches to most midsummer openings. Studios don’t save the next “E.T.” for mid-July, when families are all at Disneyland, or driving across Kansas; they open it the minute kids are out of school.

That was the original plan for “Back to the Future,” too. When it went into production last December, it was scheduled to open June 21, the earliest date Zemeckis felt he could have it ready. But after nearly five weeks of shooting, the film makers decided to replace star Eric Stolz (“Mask”) with Michael J. Fox (TV’s “Family Ties”) and start over.

“He (Stolz) was a good actor in the wrong part,” says Bob Gale, who co-wrote the script and is co-producing the film. “We got to a point where we realized that if we were going to make the movie the way we always saw it, we had to make a change.”

Since Stolz was in nearly every scene, the production was effectively postponed a full month, forcing the studio to delay its opening date. When they decided to push it back up, it became a question not only of whether Zemeckis could have it ready (he swore he could), but also whether an extensive TV advertising buy could be moved up (it was), and whether distribution could sign enough quality theaters during a summer when normally undernourished exhibitors are grazing on a plentiful field of 45 major movies.


In some states, you can initiate transactions with exhibitors by simply saying, “Spielberg.” In other states, where laws require it, you have to show them what you’ve got before asking for bids. Because of that, Universal held screenings in 29 cities Tuesday, using prints with uncorrected colors, a temporary musical score and a couple of special-effect suggestions that audiences--exhibitors and non-paying customers recruited mostly from high school and college campuses--were asked to imagine.

The next day, Universal was ready to claim a stage one victory.

“I’m assured by our distribution people that the phone is ringing off the hook,” said Sheinberg. “It’s interesting. . . . If word gets out, theaters seem to be available.”

Exhibitors are always reluctant to rave about a movie, on the likely chance that its owners will suggest higher terms. But those we talked to came very close.


“You hear the hype and you expect “E.T.” or “Ghostbusters,” and it’s not that,” says Alan Davy, a buyer for Festival Cinemas in Northern California. “But it is going to be a big picture. Not in the top five of all time, but, if they say one of the top three this summer, I won’t argue.”

Universal customers say the studio is offering tougher deals on “Back to the Future” than it made on either of its earlier summer movies, “Brewster’s Millions” and “Fletch,” but Davy says the terms are not outrageous, given the product.

“My boss is not going to call me in on this one,” he says.

FADING GHOSTS?: Lukewarm box-office response to a trial run in 12 San Diego County theaters apparently has Columbia Pictures rethinking its plans to re-release “Ghostbusters” this summer.


Shortly after the studio pulled “Ghostbusters” out of release last January, following an eight-month run that grossed more than $200 million, Columbia announced that it would return nationally Aug. 2. But, first, the preview in San Diego.

Columbia would not discuss box-office figures, but other industry sources say the film has been grossing less than $3,000 per theater per week. That’s not bad if you own one of the theaters and get to keep most of the money, which happens on trial runs like this. But it can’t be too encouraging to a studio faced with having to spend $2 to $3 million just to relaunch it.

One executive acknowledged that the re-release is now uncertain and that it may be one summer too soon to try. The question is, can they afford to wait 12 more months? The videotape edition won’t be released until “Ghostbusters” has been theatrically exhausted, and the tape is a sure thing.

ROARS FOR “RAMBO”: Normally, you won’t catch one studio enjoying another studio’s success, but the people at MGM/UA couldn’t be happier about the money Tri-Star is raking in with Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo.” Not with their own “Rocky IV” being prepared for Christmas.


“Whenever a star creates excitement, it impacts on other product he or she has coming up,” says Ed Pine, an MGM/UA vice president. “Obviously, we think ‘Rambo’ will impact favorably on ‘Rocky IV.’ ”

Exhibitors are complaining that MGM/UA is using Tri-Star’s film to leverage higher rental deals on “Rocky IV,” a charge the studio declined to discuss.

Ironically, some exhibitors have encouraged MGM/UA to raise the ante by asking for the special 90-second “Rocky IV” trailer, which they are showing with “Rambo.” That demand has helped Rocky take a title away from his most formidable oponent yet. The record 3,707 “Rocky IV” trailers in circulation gives Rocky yet another title. The former champ: “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doomn.”