Between 1910 and 1912, the ocean liner Titanic was built for a cost of $7.3 million. It was the largest and most elegant ship of its day. Five days into its maiden voyage, in April of 1912, it struck an iceberg and sank, with great loss of life. In 1996, shooting on the film Titanic began. By the spring of this year its cost was approaching $200 million. Titanic is one of the most ambitious motion pictures ever made, involving the construction of a nearly life-size replica of the ship (and a tank big enough to hold it), six months of arduous shooting, and an entirely new level of realism in digital effects.
The question of exactly when Titanic will set sail in theaters has preoccupied Hollywood almost since its shoot began. Originally slated for the July 4 weekend, its potential release date rolled back through the summer and into the fall before finally settling on December 19. While Titanic drifted across the calendar, competing movies scrambled to avoid being crushed. And Twentieth Century Fox and Paramount -- the two studios that financed the picture in the '90s spirit of cooperative risk sharing -- found their sunny partnership turning into a nightmare as they battled to defend their suddenly divergent interests.
Meanwhile, the man actually at the helm of the project, director James Cameron, was working seven days a week, seventeen hours a day, to realize his vision. Like the 1963 financial fiasco Cleopatra (whose budget in today's dollars would rival Titanic's) or the 1980 runaway Heaven's Gate (which nearly doomed United Artists), Titanic is the kind of epic picture with the power to remake the map of Hollywood, making or breaking careers and affecting entire studio management teams. But, unlike those films, it may also be a masterpiece. Those who've seen Cameron's very early cut of the movie describe it as sweeping, romantic, tragic. One executive involved can't resist invoking David Lean's Doctor Zhivago.
At the annual ShoWest convention of movie-theater owners in early March, Paramount unveiled a stunning five-minute clip of Titanic scenes that had exhibitors cheering. The studio -- which is handling the film's domestic release; Fox has the foreign rights -- announced a July 2 release date. Fox had issues with that date -- it still hadn't settled on a date for its other summer blockbuster, Speed 2: Cruise Control -- but Paramount was intent on creating exhibitor excitement. Even so, the studio had its doubts. Cameron had missed -- albeit by the skin of his teeth -- summer deadlines before, with 1989's The Abyss and 1994's True Lies. He could do it again. "I never expected him to deliver the picture on July 2," says a top Paramount executive. "That's why we put [the John Travolta-Nicolas Cage vehicle] Face/Off on June 27." Obviously the studio wouldn't risk releasing two of its biggest summer pictures practically head-to-head.
Still, Paramount needed a firm date. Two weeks after Cameron wrapped shooting, in late March, studio chairman Sherry Lansing called for a meeting. "Can you meet the July deadline?" she asked him. "Yes," he replied. According to Lansing, he said he needed the pressure.
But Titanic executive producer Rae Sanchini insists that the director had never really committed to July 2. "Jim wanted a month or so after wrap to make sure the visual effects could be done to his satisfaction," she says. "We all felt that Titanic would create its own release date," says coproducer Jon Landau.
In late April, Cameron finally revealed that he couldn't finish the movie for July 2 because the visual effects wouldn't be done in time. Cameron, Paramount, and Fox swiftly agreed to aim for July 18. But that date soon began to look like a reach as well, when it became known that Landau and Cameron -- whose own visual-effects house, Digital Domain, was already stretched to the limit -- had begun farming out additional effects shots to other shops, including Digital's archrival, Industrial Light & Magic.
While Sanchini and Landau insist they were always planning to go outside Digital Domain for some of the more routine effects shots, Hollywood interpreted the move as a sign DD was having trouble making Titanic's schedule. "This is when the cat was really out of the bag," says Paramount's president of distribution, Wayne Lewellen. "It became public knowledge that it was not ready."
But for Cameron, schedule has always taken a backseat to spectacle; one senses that no matter how many shots he farms out, he won't be satisfied till each one is just right. And Titanic's effects -- especially the 3-D renderings of crowds of virtual people on the slanting deck -- demand unprecedented levels of complexity. In fact, the major reason the production needed to hire additional digital forces was Cameron's insistence, well into postproduction, that a realistic cloud of mist be added in front of each face on the deck, to show their breath in the cold night air.
A visual-effects insider who worked on True Lies at Digital Domain says that members of the effects community are now comparing Cameron to the mythical monomaniac of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. "Cameron has gone Kurtz," he says, "like he did on The Abyss."
With the July 18 opening looking very unlikely, the next possibility was July 25, which was also the slot Columbia had reserved for Harrison Ford's Air Force One. Ford, the star of Paramount's durable Jack Ryan franchise, was soon on the phone to Paramount parent Viacom Entertainment Group chairman Jonathan Dolgen, registering his concern that the boat movie might be dropped on top of his airplane movie.
By this time, though, Paramount was already looking beyond the summer to November or Christmas, an option Lansing discussed with Cameron. But the decision was not Paramount's alone. The joint production deal gave Fox the right to approve -- if not to set -- the U.S. release date. The issue came to a head at the Cannes film festival in May, when Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman and CEO Bill Mechanic and Paramount motion picture-group vice-chairman Robert Friedman held a tense summit in Mechanic's hotel suite. Mechanic wanted August 1; Friedman pushed for November. From Paramount's perspective, August was too late; box office returns start dropping that month as schools reopen. But November would be a disaster for Fox, which had already slated its two biggest holiday movies -- Anastasia and Alien Resurrection -- for that month.
It was not the first time that Mechanic found himself regretting that he had asked Paramount to be Fox's financial partner. The studios had brokered a similar partnership on Braveheart, but this time there was a crucial difference: Tightfisted Paramount had put a ceiling of $65 million (plus about $35 million in marketing costs) on its commitment. Ultimately, Fox's investment could double that of Paramount's.
Mechanic had every reason to be nervous. After reaping worldwide box office bonanzas with ID4 and the revamped Star Wars trilogy, Fox was betting the house on a string of would-be blockbusters, from the spring clunker Volcano (approximate cost: $90 million) to the disappointing Speed 2 (an estimated $125 million) to Alien Resurrection (budgeted at $70 million). If all those movies -- including Titanic -- somehow failed to perform, it could spell the end of the current management team at Fox. Small wonder that Mechanic wanted to get Titanic out of his hair. The frustrated executive even offered to buy Paramount's share of the movie back. But the offer didn't fly. ("What's my downside risk?" asks a top Paramount exec. "I've got $65 million in a movie that, my guess, is costing close to 200, give or take, and it looks like it could be one of the best pictures ever.")
Some said Mechanic and Friedman almost came to blows at Cannes. Mechanic finds that suggestion laughable. Friedman jokingly entertains it: "He's smaller than me," he laughs. "I could take him."
Back in Los Angeles, the wrangling raged on. A conference call was set up among a remarkable array of power brokers. On Fox's side, Fox Group CEO Peter Chernin, Mechanic, and senior-vice president of Fox Filmed Entertainment Tom Sherak; on Paramount's, Dolgen and Lansing, Friedman, and Lewellen. Lansing urged the Fox representatives to recognize that Cameron would never make the August 1 deadline, while Chernin and company were dead-set against Lansing's proposed November time slot. The meeting, says one participant, degenerated into "ugly screamings." Still, in the end they all agreed to stick with the August date.
There was just one problem. "We had this conversation," says Lewellen, "without including the guy controlling the picture." A guy who had different ideas about the ideal release date. "Before December was decided," Sanchini says, "Jim concluded that that was the best date for the film."
And so, over Memorial Day weekend, Paramount and Fox agreed to go Cameron's way. ("We've been fighting with Paramount," Fox's Sherak wants to make clear. "We never fight with Jim.") The late date gives Fox needed breathing room for Thanksgiving's Alien Resurrection and also serves everyone's hopes for an Oscar push.
But even if the film does wind up an Oscar contender, it will have to perform like a megablockbuster to make money. While Paramount is fairly certain to recoup its investment (both partners get back $65 million of the first $130 million returned to them; after that, Fox gets approximately 60 percent of the take until it recovers its investment), if the movie is the $200 million monster it's thought to be, it will probably have to gross more than $500 million worldwide to see a profit. "That's crazy," says an industry skeptic. "Mission: Impossible" did $450 million worldwide."
But Cameron's movies have pushed budget limits before and gone on to make vast sums for the studios that gambled on them. With Titanic, Cameron may be testing not only the scope of his own vision but the limits of how big a Hollywood picture can be.
Anne Thompson is the West Coast Editor of Premiere
© Premiere (August, 1997)
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