He started off as a protégé of Steven Spielberg in The '70s. Zemeckis and his writing partner Bob Gale (they were collectively known as The Bobs) wrote several cult films which flopped during this time, including I Wanna Hold Your Hand (directed by Zemeckis), 1941 (directed by Spielberg), and Used Cars (directed by Zemeckis).
Zemeckis first hit it big in The '80s directing the light-hearted adventure film Romancing the Stone. He followed it up with Back to the Future (which The Bobs had written a few years before, but couldn't get made) and Roger Rabbit. At the end of the decade, The Bobs made sequels to Back to the Future to please Universal's executives. Starting in The '90s, Zemeckis went on to direct more "serious" fare such as Forrest Gump, Contact and Cast Away.
At the Turn of the Millennium, Zemeckis made several animated films with performance capture technology, giving us The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol. Responses to these films are mixed, mostly due to how disturbing they all looked, and this phase of his career is now considered his Dork Age. After the box office cataclysm that was Mars Needs Moms caused his studio to shut down, he then had to head back to live-action cinema. In 2012 he released Flight starring Denzel Washington, his first live-action movie in 12 years (and his first R-rated movie as a director since 1980's Used Cars - The Bobs' script The Looters, written in the pre-BttF era, was made by Walter Hill in 1992 as Trespass). It was a critical and commercial success, and helped usher in a Career Resurrection.
Allied starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard was released in 2016. This was followed with Welcome to Marwen, starring Steve Carell and released in December 2018, and an adaptation of The Witches, starring Anne Hathaway and Chris Rock, released in October 2020. He is also attached to direct the sci-fi film Steel Soldiers and a remake of Pinocchio.
- I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978)
- Used Cars (1980)
- Romancing the Stone (1984)
- Back to the Future (1985)
- Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
- Death Becomes Her (1992)
- Forrest Gump (1994)
- The Frighteners (1996) (executive producer)
- Contact (1997)
- Cast Away (2000)
- What Lies Beneath (2000)
- Gothika (2003) (producer)
- Matchstick Men (2003) (executive producer)
- The Polar Express (2004)
- Monster House (2006) (executive producer)
- Beowulf (2007)
- A Christmas Carol (2009)
- Mars Needs Moms (2011) (producer)
- Real Steel (2011) (executive producer)
- Flight (2012)
- The Walk (2015)
- Allied (2016)
- Welcome to Marwen (2018)
- The Witches (2020)
- Pinocchio (TBA)
- The King (TBA)
Common tropes in his films:
- The Alcoholic: Alcoholism seemed to have been a kind-of recurring theme as some lead characters in his films either briefly resorted to or went to full-on drinking. Examples include: Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Ernest Menville in Death Becomes Her and Doc Brown and Lorraine in the Back to the Future trilogy. Most notably, this was the major central conflict for Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) in Flight.
- Associated Composer: Ever since Romancing the Stone, composing legend Alan Silvestri has scored every one of Zemeckis' works; the iconic Back to the Future theme included. His collaboration with Zemeckis is right up there with the likes of Tim Burton and Danny Elfman as well as Steven Spielberg and John Williams.
- Breakthrough Hit: Romancing the Stone propelled him to big-time household name status while Back to the Future helped solidify it.
- Chekhov's Gun: Zemeckis was a master of what he referred to as "setup and payoff", a storytelling technique that relies on setting up seemingly irrelevant details or statements that have importance that only comes later in the payoff.
- Career Resurrection: Zig-zagged: his Motion Capture films barely made a dent in his career, but his critical feedback improved immensely after Flight. However the following three films he made all tanked at the box office putting him on the back foot again.
- Creator Killer: While Mars Needs Moms didn't damage his career (as the critical acclaim of Flight can attest to), it did lead to the closure of Image Movers Studio and convince him to return to live-action. After both The Walk and Allied bombed, Welcome to Marwen might be this for him as an original theatrical filmmaker after it tied for the worst opening weekend of the year and is on course to lose the studio $60 million. (His next two films both went to streaming services.)
- Doing It for the Art: Zemeckis said in an interview that a movie he made could only make a dollar at the box office and he still would have been happy with the film.
- He also stated that he never regretted any movie he has ever made and is proud of everything that he has done.
- Funny Background Event: In his earlier works, some shots will linger on one or more characters talking or doing something while there's activity among others in the background that they usually aren't aware of.
- Genre Roulette: Action-adventure (Romancing the Stone, Who Framed Roger Rabbit), comedy (I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Used Cars), science fiction (Back to the Future, Contact), fantasy (Beowulf), horror and Black Comedy (Death Becomes Her, What Lies Beneath), drama (Forrest Gump, Cast Away, Flight), biopic (The Walk), espionage thriller (Allied) and holiday (The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol).
- Loads and Loads of Roles: The two Christmas-set motion capture films do this with their principal actors.
- Also did this with the Back to the Future sequels, where Michael J. Fox played Marty McFly and numerous members of his family.
- Motion Capture: From about 2004-2011, Zemeckis made nothing but Motion Capture movies which always proved to be commercial successes in spite of falling into the Uncanny Valley. After the abysmal failure of Mars Needs Moms (which he didn't direct, yet had his production company behind it.) helped shut down his studio, he's back to making live action movies.
- Playing Against Type: Often casts actors this way.
- Signature Style: Loves to use big musical cues to highlight important reveals and plot developments, along with musical crescendos. The Back to the Future trilogy is filled with them. He is also always on the cusp of advancing film technology with many of his films Starring Special Effects, Double Vision, Motion Capture or blending actors into historical settings.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism vs. Cynicism: With only a few exceptions like Death Becomes Her and perhaps Used Cars, his works are very much on the optimistic side due to the amount of heart found in his films and his positive and in-depth take on the human spirit.
- Starring Special Effects: Many of his films, even the live-action ones, are quite the pioneers in special effects advancement. 3 of 4 films he made that were nominated for the Best Visual Effects oscar won.note
- Tom Hanks Syndrome: A director example and also zig-zagged. He started off with relatively lighthearted, effects-laden action-adventure, fantasy and comedy films (Used Cars, Romancing the Stone, Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Death Becomes Her) before veering off into heavy dramatic territory (Forrest Gump, Cast Away note , Contact). Then after starting ImageMovers, he went back to fantasy (The Polar Express, Beowulf,) before, once again, heading into drama (Flight, The Walk, Allied). That being said, many of his fantasy and adventure works are not without their serious moments.
- Trailers Always Spoil: Intentionally does this with his films (the one for Cast Away gives away that he does get off the island while the one for What Lies Beneath gives away Harrison Ford as the bad guy, which renders the first 90 minutes of the heroine trying to figure it out moot.) He says that the market research shows that people want to know everything before going in.
- Uncanny Family Resemblance: The Back To The Future sequels and Forrest Gump.
- What Could Have Been:
- Due to the box office disaster this ImageMovers left us with, Image Movers had other films planned such as a film based on The Nutcracker, a Roger Rabbit sequel, a remake of the 70s classic Yellow Submarine and a Kaiju Genre Throwback film Calling All Robots.
- He was approached by George Lucas to direct The Phantom Menace, but he declined.
- He was in talks to direct a live-action Alvin and the Chipmunks movie for Universal in the mid-90s, but production was halted.
- He was reportedly considered to direct The Flash for the DC Extended Universe, but turned it down over scheduling conflicts. Ultimately, Andrés Muschietti was hired instead.