James Cameron’s epic love story endured an uneasy sail before becoming a global phenomenon.
Every once in a while, a film comes along that brazenly defies expectations and reality, and the result is a moment in the cultural zeitgeist that takes on mythic proportions. Whether it’s George Lucas reinventing the space opera with Star Wars, Steven Spielberg touching the hearts of audiences around the world with E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, or Quentin Tarantino breathing new and exciting life into the crime genre with Pulp Fiction, only a handful of films can claim membership to such an elite club. Fast approaching its 25th anniversary this December, James Cameron‘s Titanic is one such film. Widely revered and beloved for its grand scale, emotional core, and sweeping dramatization of one of the 20th century’s most legendary disasters, the 1997 epic love story quickly cemented its place in pop culture history by, despite formidable odds, becoming the highest-grossing film at the time and the first movie ever to surpass a billion dollars at the box office. It also won 11 Academy Awards.
But Titanic’s journey to the big screen was anything but smooth sailing, and the history surrounding the making of the film suggests that a palpable sense of uncertainty regarding its prospects for success permeated the production and expectations of those involved. Conceived by Cameron and pitched to 20th Century Fox as “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic,” the maverick filmmaker was given a green light without much more than a written treatment. After a series of dives to the wreck, which was ultimately incorporated into the film both practically and narratively, Cameron extensively researched the ship’s history and wrote his screenplay centered on star-crossed lovers who meet on the ocean liner’s maiden and final voyage. Initially budgeted at $110 million, scheduled for 138 shooting days, and set to be released on July 2, 1997, production on Titanic commenced in the summer of 1996. With the stage set and the wheels of an unstoppable object in motion, Cameron, along with his cast and crew, would embark on a cinematic journey that, for better or worse, was sure to make history.
‘Titanic’s Production Was a Monumental Undertaking
Titanic arrived at a crucial pivot point regarding methods employed for achieving the impossible on screen. Game-changing digital technology had recently burst onto the scene in films like Jurassic Park and Cameron’s own T2: Judgment Day, and slowly but surely, traditional approaches to the technical side of filmmaking were changing. Cameron’s epic found itself at an aesthetic crossroads, with one foot in the digital world and one in the analog world of model-making and practical effects. Leaning heavily into the latter for the sake of authenticity, recreating the unsinkable ship and its eventual demise necessitated the construction of an entirely new studio facility in Rosarito, Baja California, Mexico. At an estimated cost of $20 million, Baja Studios consisted of several sound stages and water tanks, one of which was a large horizon tank with 270 degrees of ocean visibility.
In a feat of unparalleled craftsmanship likely never to be repeated on the same scale, the production constructed a full-scale replica of much of the titular ship right beside the Pacific, according to The Washington Post. Nestled in the 17 million gallon tank and affording audiences a view that seamlessly integrated the nearby ocean, the life-size model and set could be submerged accordingly for the climactic sinking sequences. Two other tanks capable of holding massive quantities of water were used for the sinking of the ship’s interiors and sequences depicting passengers stranded in the ocean. Few feats combining such state-of-the-art engineering with cinematic artistry have been attempted in the years since Titanic‘s production. In a logistical move that would later be echoed by his film Avatar, Cameron and the studios supporting him were laying down an ambitious and innovative track for a massive train already in motion.
The founding of Baja Studios in accommodating Titanic‘s immense demands was only the beginning of the daunting tasks awaiting the filmmaker and his production. In bringing to life a period piece that required great attention to detail and was very specific to time and place, Titanic‘s department heads, particularly with respect to costumes, production design, and effects had their work cut out for them. With the aid of historians, original photographs, and blueprints, the production was tasked with recreating the interior of the ship in painstaking detail. In addition, an army of extras that served as stunt performers and background players who would populate the vast sets had to be fitted with clothing, armed with props and physically coordinated in a manner that one can assume amounted to controlled chaos.
The sheer scale of the film began to take its toll on the previously negotiated budget and shooting schedule, with the budget eventually rising to a then-record $200 million and the latter extending from 138 to 160 shooting days. Once principal photography ended, special and visual effects crews worked tirelessly to achieve a level of realism and craftsmanship required by the film’s ambitious undertaking. Upon realizing that the workload needed to complete Titanic would be far too great to meet its July 1997 date, Cameron broke the news to Paramount and Fox that the film’s release would need to be delayed. The studios, having already invested an enormous amount of money and time into the project, had no choice but to relent and, on December 19, 1997, Titanic finally hit theaters. According to The Washington Post, Cameron and company held their collective breath in what must have been nail-biting anticipation, hoping their film wouldn’t become a metaphorical punching bag for disaster.
A Three-Hour December Release With No Big Stars
It wasn’t just a difficult production that jeopardized Titanic‘s prospects for success. Cameron’s initial pitch to Fox included the caveat that his film would clock in at three hours, typically a proposition balked at by studios and, in particular, exhibitors. From a purely financial standpoint, theaters can’t schedule as many screenings in one day due to such a runtime, ultimately cutting down on the number of tickets that can be sold. With the film’s budget rising to the number that it did, Paramount and Fox requested that Cameron shorten Titanic’s length in the hopes of squeezing more money out of additional screenings. Exercising a bit of leverage in once again knowing that his backers were between a rock and a hard place with their investment, the filmmaker flat-out refused and Titanic steamed ahead at 194 minutes. In a final bid to appease his financiers, Cameron would forfeit his salary and gross percentage points.
The film was also up against potential financial odds due to its lack of star power. It may be difficult for some to remember a time when Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet weren’t A-list movie stars, and although Titanic‘s cast included some well-known actors like Bill Paxton and Kathy Bates, the film’s ensemble didn’t feature any performers who had a reputation for being especially bankable. In 1997, DiCaprio’s star was certainly on the rise with performances in films like Romeo + Juliet and What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, the latter of which earned him his first Oscar nomination, but he wouldn’t achieve international stardom until audiences saw him in Cameron’s film. Kate Winslet was an even less recognizable name with appearances in a small handful of films prior to her star-making (and Oscar-nominated) turn as Rose. In acquiring $200 million for an epic production that was being headlined by two relatively up-and-coming actors, Cameron seemed to be operating under the notion that while the romance between Jack and Rose would be the film’s emotional tether to audiences, it was the film itself that would be the star.
Having delayed its original release date, Titanic debuted on December 19, 1997. In the years since, the idea of releasing blockbuster films outside the typically busy summer movie season has changed significantly. With fan-favorite franchises like The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and, more recently, Star Wars consistently hitting theaters during the holiday season in the years following Cameron’s film, December has proven to be a financially formidable month for blockbuster hopefuls. In 1997, however, the perception among the studios involved, exhibitors, and industry insiders was that a December release for Titanic, which needed to generate big box office numbers simply to break even, was a dubious prospect at best.
Cameron Crowned King of the World
Arriving in theaters a week after the $33 million opening of Scream 2 and the same day as Tomorrow Never Dies, which would open to $25 million, Titanic raked in nearly $28 million over its opening weekend and topped the box office. This number wouldn’t generally be considered a disappointment, but the unprecedented amount of money spent on the film’s production and marketing meant that its box office opening would be judged through a lens of unusually high expectations. In spite of Titanic‘s respectable but relatively mediocre debut, its theatrical performance in the ensuing weeks and months would write a new chapter in box office history. In terms of weekend grosses, nearly all films see their biggest numbers in their first weekend and gradually taper off with diminishing returns on each subsequent weekend. Titanic was, and still is, an anomaly in this respect as the film consistently grossed within that original $25-30 million range every weekend for more than a month after its release. Cameron’s film also managed to remain number one at the domestic box office for a staggering 15 consecutive weeks, a milestone not accomplished by any film since and only once before with Steven Spielberg’s E.T.
Ending its North American theatrical run on October 1, 1998, Titanic had become the highest-grossing film to date with a total of $600 domestically and $1.2 billion worldwide. For all the naysayers who predicted the film would either fail to recoup its investment or flop altogether, the cinematic chickens had come home to roost and the fearless man at Titanic‘s helm would have the last laugh. On March 23, 1998, as his film was still king of the box office more than three months after being released, James Cameron would receive his own crown of sorts in the form of three Academy Awards: Best Editing, Best Director, and Best Picture. His acceptance speech for the Best Director award has gone down in history as a memorable one in which he concluded by excitedly uttering six words that had recently entered the lexicon of pop culture: “I’m the King of the World!”
Much has been made of Titanic‘s incredible success and enduring legacy in the last 25 years. In terms of its astonishing box office take, the film benefited immensely from positive word of mouth and repeat viewings. It quickly became one of the quintessential water cooler film; people who had a powerful and emotional response to it wanted to share that experience with family and friends, and for some viewers, seeing Titanic only once was far from sufficient. Scores of people from all demographics made it back to the theater for two, three, and in some cases, even ten or more viewings, greatly contributing to the film’s lasting popularity over the course of nearly ten months.
There’s also the simple fact that the film capitalized on what has traditionally and consistently appealed to moviegoers for decades: an escapist experience with a tremendous sense of grand scale. Titanic is one of the definitive examples of cinema’s ability to transport audiences to another place and time. Like the epics of Cecil B. DeMille and David Lean, Cameron painted on a broad and sweeping canvas, and with Titanic, he used every available tool and method, both technically and narratively, to put viewers on that luxurious ocean liner and enable them to experience its thrilling exuberance and the tremendous tragedy its passengers endured. While the odds were initially (and very understandably) stacked against Cameron and his cohort of cast, crew, and studio backers, their film captured lightning in a bottle and remains one of cinema and pop culture’s defining moments.