You’d think there’d be a ticker-tape parade, a gala commemorative screening, or maybe a new anchor print in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. But no, the 10th anniversary of James Cameron’s Titanic — which was released on Dec. 19, 1997 — is being marked by little more than a repackaged special-edition DVD.
It’s a strangely low-key celebration, considering that in a 1998 cover story this very magazine said that Titanic would change the way Hollywood did just about everything. In many respects, it did: Titanic altered the mathematics of the movie industry, teaching the town to count past a billion. (Actually, way past: Titanic eventually took in $1.8 billion and remains the top-grossing movie of all time.) Its infamously criticized $200 million budget, which had the whole business preparing for doomsday, would now be considered a bargain. The monster fortunes reportedly spent on Spider-Man 3 ($270 million) or Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End ($300 million) barely make headlines anymore. ”Titanic showed people in Hollywood that they could make a big bet,” says an executive close to the production. ”And it paid off in ways nobody ever thought.”
It also taught them that it was okay to hedge those bets by splitting the risk. Before Cameron dreamed up waterlogged action sequences that required the construction of an entirely new studio in Mexico, single companies generally footed the bill for their own movies. But Titanic became such a drain that Fox teamed up with Paramount to cover some costs. The gambit paid off. Titanic spent an unprecedented 15 consecutive weeks atop the box office. In the years since, just as we predicted, many big-ticket films have been supported by up to three separate backers. The formula has yielded pricey prestige pictures like Gladiator and A Beautiful Mind, two Universal/DreamWorks co-productions — and Oscar winners — that might never have gotten made otherwise.
But Titanic’s ultimate legacy is what (and who) we see on screen. Analysts credited repeat viewing from 13-year-old girls for the film’s success, and sure enough, look no further than the success of High School Musical — a TV phenomenon that’s now on its way to the big screen — for evidence that tweens are still the sweet spot for Hollywood marketing departments. By casting nascent stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as his leads, Cameron let it be known that the doomed ocean liner was the real star of his show. Now — with the exception of the glitzy Ocean’s franchise — it’s harder and harder to find event movies that rely on star power alone. And if even thinking about the film makes you misty-eyed, you’ve probably cried at one of Titanic’s descendants, too. From Moulin Rouge to Brokeback Mountain and this month’s Atonement, studios learned to fall in love with love again — only this time, it was the kind that hurt like hell. Recalls the executive, ”Working on the script I always said, ‘[In] great love stories, they never end up together. You gotta give the people what they want.”’ And did they ever.