$1 bil, & still no iceberg

Ship sails past global barrier; aimed for 'Star Wars'

After breaking an endless series of box office records, “Titanic” this week crossed over the ultimate threshhold: To no one’s surprise, it became the first film to pass $1 billion in worldwide theatrical B.O.

The film docked in Sunday with a combined domestic and international gross of $1,002,706,625. Of that amount, $427 million was generated from North American screens, while overseas it’s chalked up $575.7 million.

Domestically, the James Cameron-helmed pic still trails “Star Wars,” which has raked in $461 million, but it’s taken home every other record. Last week, its overseas tally made it the all-time biggest film overseas and the biggest film worldwide (which encompasses domestic and international). The previous record holder in both those races was “Jurassic Park,” with $556 million overseas and $357 million domestically.

Given its steadily titanic B.O. since its Dec. 19 bow, the pic was headed to smash through the billion-dollar mark this week. However, the weekend tally put the pic over that threshold a few days earlier than expected.

One of the remarkable things about the success of “Titanic” is that it defies so many formulas and truisms about what makes a film popular.

For one thing, it harkens back to a type of popular entertainment that hasn’t been particularly potent in decades: the epic romance. The biggest hits since the 1970s have been action, science-fiction or family films. Sweeping romances like “The English Patient” have been big hits, but not exactly phenomena.

In the domestic B.O. top 25, only two movies of the last few decades were romances: “Forrest Gump” and “Ghost,” and both were rife with fantastical elements.

In spirit, “Titanic” is less like those films than it is like the granddaddy of all epic romances: “Gone With the Wind” (both films, interestingly, were set approximately 80 years before their respective release dates).

“Titanic” also differs from recent blockbusters in a couple of other ways. Its audience is predominantly female and its setting is historic. Although best picture Oscar-winners since 1980 have almost always been journeys into the past, they’ve rarely been top grossers.

It’s easy to understand why films geared toward teens and early 20s enjoy a commercial edge. That segment of moviegoers has considerably more leisure time and is more likely to indulge in repeat viewings of a film they like.

While younger audiences are embracing the love story between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, much of “Titanic’s” repeat business is coming from viewers who are older than 25.

Given the usual pattern of contemporary playing time, “Titanic’s” longevity is even more impressive. Movies are marketed and distributed to have spectacular debuts and fade. Today, even top-performing pics disappear from the marketplace after two months.

In its 10th week of release, “Titanic’s” weekend gross was a slim 27% off its opening. Only two other films have led the domestic marketplace for more than 10 weeks since Daily Variety began tracking national B.O. in 1981: “E.T.” and “Home Alone.” In their respective 10th weeks, their grosses were down 34% and 35% from debut frames back in the pre-megaplex era.

Because “Titanic’s” commercial arc has defied the laws of box office gravity, domestic exhibitors are enjoying the rare phenom of more favorable percentage splits with the distributor, Paramount — and that’s coming at a time when the film easily has the best per-engagement average of any wide release.

The theatrical rental terms on “Titanic” were typical for a seasonal event movie. In general terms, the film’s opening weeks were divvied up on a 90%-10% basis, favoring the distributor, after house expenses were deducted.

At this point in its run — depending on the venue — the distrib share is probably no greater than 60% and maybe even as low as 35%. Its ongoing stamina will mean that the distrib will receive a smaller percentage of box office than it would have if the picture had earned the majority of its theatrical revenue during the first six weeks of release.

In almost every key area of contemporary filmgoing, “Titanic” is an aberration. So, even if Sony’s “Godzilla” stomps into the marketplace with monster numbers during the Memorial holiday weekend, the possibility of it benefiting from, or replicating, the Cameron picture’s track record is highly unlikely.

(Timothy M. Gray contributed to this report.)

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