When it comes to box office statistics, the needier the movie, the noisier the hyperbole that gets flung: Top second Tuesday of all time! Highest-grossing PG-13-rated horror movie in history! Best opening for an Ashton Kutcher film ever!
Records like those are meant to be broken; they’re tailored for an industry that lives on (and for) overstatement. So it’s worth noting one record that isn’t budging. Ten years ago this August, Titanic passed the $600 million mark at the domestic box office. It remains the only movie ever to do so, and the contest isn’t even close: The runner-up, Star Wars, topped out at $461 million. Worldwide, it’s even more lopsided: Titanic’s $1.8 billion surpasses its nearest competitor, The Return of the King, by more than $700 million. Now, that’s a record.
As the highest-grossing movie of all time begins its second decade at the top, some in Hollywood are buzzing about whether The Dark Knight, given its astonishing first two weeks at the box office, can take Titanic down.
No. It cannot. It’s a tribute to the talent of Christopher Nolan, a symbol of the preeminence of the comic-book movie, and a reflection of the sad X factor of Heath Ledger’s last completed performance that The Dark Knight will (I think) come closer to Titanic than any movie yet. And the collective hysteria of the fanboy-drooler segment of its audience has now managed to get the film labeled as — I’m not kidding — the best movie ever made, according to IMDb. (I’m as much of an Internet junkie as anyone, but that kind of Web-based dumbocracy gives the right to vote a bad name.)
After all is said and done, though, Titanic’s record will remain untouched. To understand why is to acknowledge how much the moviegoing world has changed in just a decade. Titanic started strongly over the Christmas holiday in 1997, but not dramatically so: According to BoxOfficeMojo.com, the movie boasts merely the 238th-best opening weekend ever (placing it slightly below the sequel to Jackass). And Titanic took nearly a month to gross $200 million. The Dark Knight hit that mark in just five days.
But what happened after that — in the second month, and the third — is what made Titanic a phenomenon that now seems like a remnant of a lost world. People kept going. And going back. And then more people went. The movie, which opened at No. 1, stayed there not for weeks, but for months. Box office analysts, studio executives, and journalists all floated various explanations: The movie’s cross-demographic appeal. The boost it got from 14 Oscar nominations. Leo, Leo, Leo. Repeat business. Word of mouth. All of them sounded credible; none really explain what happened.
Even now, nobody knows, so nobody talks about it much. In the decade since Titanic, studios have just about perfected their ability to get masses of people into theaters in the first weekend or two of a movie’s release. For blockbusters, and blockbuster wannabes, the mantra is ”See it now, or be the loser who didn’t see it now!” And we go, early and quickly, because it’s fun to be first, and because we want to outrace Web spoilers, and because something big is coming next week that will make this movie yesterday’s news. Or, more often, we wait for the DVD. But staying power? A three-month run at the top? That’s so 1998.
None of this diminishes the performance of The Dark Knight. It’s a game-changer, the colossus of a summer in which comic-book movies will gross over a billion dollars. As a result, we will see many more — and they may be longer, darker, and (one hopes) sometimes even made with as much ambition as Nolan brought to his movie. And someday, if not next February, one of them will get a Best Picture nomination, just as movies in other genres once thought to be too low-end for the Oscars (sci-fi, horror, animation) all eventually cracked the final five. In any case, we will feel this summer resonate in 2010, 2011, and 2012. A success on the order of The Dark Knight only breeds imitation. But nobody has yet come up with a way to imitate Titanic. And Batman is running a race for second place. Somewhere, James Cameron — king of the world for at least one more year — is smiling.