Biography: Oscar-Winning Director Robert Zemeckis

Ryan Loftis By Ryan Loftis, 14th May 2015 | Follow this author | RSS Feed | Short URL
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A biography of Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis, whose credits include such classics as "Back to the Future," "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," and "Forrest Gump."

Early Years

Robert Zemeckis was born on May 14, 1952, in Chicago and grew up in what he called "a working-poor family" on the city's South Side. In his youth, "I watched everything on television," Zemeckis recalled. "It was like my window on the world. But we also went to the movies pretty regularly; mostly on Tuesdays, because that was Ladies Night and my mom could get in for free."

Seeing Bonnie and Clyde as a teenager gave Zemeckis a deeper appreciation for movies. "I had the experience of feeling very emotional when Gene Hackman's character was dying, and that's when I realized that there was immense power involved in all of this," he said. "At that same time, I had an inspiring English literature teacher, and I started to understand drama, the three-act structure, different characters, and the rest. That's also when I learned there were writers and directors, and that movies had to start from the written word. I became obsessed and wanted to know everything I could about movies; I read whatever I could get my hands on." He graduated from the University of Southern California's film school in 1973.

Huge Success After a Rocky Start

Zemeckis' first two directorial efforts, 1978's I Wanna Hold Your Hand and 1980's Used Cars, were box-office failures. "The biggest lesson I learned on both of those projects was that a filmmaker's job isn't done when you're finished making the movie. You have to really get involved in the marketing," he said. "Just because you were making a movie at a studio didn't mean the studio had any interest in it."

At Michael Douglas' urging, Zemeckis was hired to direct 1984's Romancing the Stone, which was the year's eighth highest-grossing movie and won the Best Motion Picture - Comedy or Musical Golden Globe. As impressive as that movie's success was, it was dwarfed by Zemeckis' next project. Budgeted at $19 million, Back to the Future earned $210.6 million, making it 1985's highest-grossing movie. Adjusted for inflation, Back to the Future is the 61st highest-grossing movie of all time with $479.4 million in ticket sales. Zemeckis and Bob Gale earned an Oscar nomination for their screenplay (the movie won an Oscar for sound effects editing).

Zemeckis enjoyed another enormous success with 1988's Who Framed Roger Rabbit. According to the Los Angeles Times, the movie, which starred Bob Hoskins as a 1940s private detective who takes on the titular cartoon character as a client, "marked the first time beloved animated characters from rival studios - such as Disney's Mickey Mouse and Warner Bros.' Bugs Bunny - appeared together. The traditionally hand-drawn animated film heralded a renewed appreciation of the Golden Age of animation and spawned the modern era of animation, especially at Disney." Who Framed Roger Rabbit was the year's second highest-grossing movie, earning more than double its $70 million budget, and won four Oscars in technical categories, including a special achievement award for animation director Richard Williams.

Back to the Future's success made sequels necessary, and Zemeckis once again stepped behind the camera. While not as successful as its predecessor, 1989's Back to the Future Part II earned almost three times its $40 million budget and was the year's sixth highest-grossing movie. 1990's Back to the Future Part III was also successful, although it was the only film in the trilogy to not finish among the year's 10 most popular movies.

Forrest Gump

Zemeckis directed 1992's Death Becomes Her, which was a commercial disappointment domestically but won an Oscar for special visual effects. Weak grosses wouldn't be an issue for Zemeckis' next film, 1994's Forrest Gump. Gump was the year's highest-grossing movie, earning $329.6 million. Adjusted for inflation, Gump has earned $638.3 million, making it the 24th highest-grossing film of all time.

In an article ranking Gump seventh on its "20 Best Summer Blockbusters of All Time" list, Entertainment Weekly wrote, "Gump's biggest contribution to film was its technological innovation. Zemeckis and his team engineered a means of integrating new footage and archival stock more seamlessly than anyone ever had before, and the visual effects team swept pretty much every awards race that season." Scenes placing the titular character, played by Tom Hanks, in the Oval Office with presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson received wide attention, while actor Gary Sinise said he was "shocked" when he saw himself onscreen missing both his legs. "I guess I was unprepared for just how great the effects would be, because I know what it looked like when we doing it," the able-bodied Sinise said. Gump won six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for Zemeckis, and Best Actor for Hanks.

Zemeckis' follow-up to Gump's historic triumph was 1997's Contact, an adaptation of astronomer Carl Sagan's novel starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. While Gump was praised for footage of Hanks interacting with former presidents, the White House called Contact's use of newsreel footage by then-President Bill Clinton "inappropriate." Budgeted at $90 million, Contact grossed $171.1 million worldwide.

The 21st Century

Zemeckis enjoyed two directorial successes in 2000. The thriller What Lies Beneath with Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer opened that summer and grossed $291.4 million worldwide, nearly three times its budget. That December, Cast Away, which reunited Zemeckis and Hanks, was released and grossed $429.6 million worldwide, nearly five times its budget. Hanks earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing a FedEx executive stranded on a remote island after surviving a plane crash. Both What Lies Beneath and Cast Away were among the year's 10 highest-grossing movies (Cast Away ranked second).

Zemeckis' next three films - 2004's The Polar Express, 2007's Beowulf, and 2009's A Christmas Carol - used motion-capture technology, in which scanners track performers' movements and transform them into three-dimensional models. "In effect the technology transforms a human actor into a data field that the filmmaker can manipulate to his heart's content," according to the New York Times. The technology allowed Hanks to play six characters in A Christmas Carol, "from a train conductor to a rather sinister Santa Claus." The three films each cost $150-$200 million to make and needed strong overseas grosses to cover their production costs.

2012's Flight was Zemeckis' first live-action film in 12 years. Thanks to both Zemeckis and star Denzel Washington relinquishing their traditional huge salaries, a movie with 400 digital effects shots cost only $31 million to make. Flight grossed $93.7 million domestically, and Washington earned a Best Actor Oscar nomination for playing an alcoholic and cocaine-addicted pilot.

To date, Zemeckis' films have grossed a total of $3.5 billion when adjusted for inflation (the average gross is $218.9 million). That total will grow when Zemeckis' latest film, The Walk, opens on Oct. 2, 2015. Based on the true story of a French entertainer who walked on a high wire between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, the movie will star Joseph Gordon-Levitt.


Forrest Gump, Oscars, Robert Zemeckis, Tom Hanks

Meet the author

author avatar Ryan Loftis
I graduated from Central Michigan University with a journalism degree and have been a freelance writer for various print and online publications since then.

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author avatar SaigonDeManila
15th May 2015 (#)

Thanks for the sahre..never knew "Romancing the Stone" was a zemeckis film. But yea his Back to the future was a classic with his empecabnle signature all over "Forrest Gump" just wondering how come "flight" did made it to cross the 100 million decent mark.

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