For “Titanic,” the trip to Monday night’s record-tying 11 Academy Awards was a treacherous one.
The most expensive movie ever made — in real dollar terms at least — “Titanic’s” production was plagued from the beginning by illness, massive cost overruns, production delays and squabbling between co-production partners 20th Century Fox and Paramount.
As the costs mounted, James Cameron gave up his directing fee and his gross profit participation in the film — although Fox has recently reinstated at least a portion of that.
But contrary to the dire predictions of naysayers in the media and at the two studios themselves, the film’s course changed dramatically with its Dec. 19 release.
“Titanic” has remained atop the worldwide box office chart for the 14 weeks since then, becoming the highest-grossing film in history. Rapidly approaching the $500 million mark domestically, “Titanic” already has cumed more than $700 million overseas.
Holding his three statuettes — one each for editing, directing and producing — as he answered questions backstage, Cameron was asked whether he felt vindicated by the Academy plaudits. “I feel happy. Vindicated has a negative connotation, but this is pure bliss,” he said.
“Titanic’s” astonishing box office success is an indication both of the sheer number of people who have gone to see the film, and a die-hard group of repeat viewers.
“People are getting something out of this on an emotional level,” said Jon Landau, who produced the film along with Cameron. “It’s like when you were younger and you used to listen to the same record album over and over again.”
Ironically, though it was the film’s complex special effects and Cameron’s attention to visual detail that pushed it into uncharted budget territory, the film’s romantic storyline and Leonardo DiCaprio’s star power are most often cited as causes for “Titanic’s” unprecedented popularity. Neither Cameron’s script nor DiCaprio was nominated for Oscars.
“It’s the correct balance of all the movie’s aspects that is important,” Cameron told reporters. “That’s the one thing that hasn’t been concentrated on.”
“We realized we had to immerse the audience into this love story set against one of the great tragedies of the 20th century,” Landau added. “We knew we had to keep the audience on board the whole time along with the protagonists.”
Despite the film’s unprecedented success, Fox had until recently not yet made a specific deal to reward Cameron. However, a new deal, which is tied to future Cameron projects, is reportedly in the works.
Cameron said he plans to do a director’s cut version of the film, which would likely be released on laserdisc or DVD.
“People were asking me about a director’s cut after very early screenings,” said Cameron. “When they said that to me after a three hour, 14 minute version, I knew I was in Fat City. We will add about 15 or 20 minutes. Don’t expect a seven-hour movie.”
While the filmmakers were confident of the film’s merits all along, Hollywood onlookers — including many execs at the two studios — doubted the film could ever recoup its vast budget.
“Right from the script stage we believed we had something special,” recalled Landau. “But when the first dailies came in, it was clear there was something magical between Kate and Leonardo.”
On Monday afternoon, as a limo sped him toward the Shrine Auditorium, Landau said before the film was finished he never pictured himself accepting an Oscar for “Titanic.” “I pictured myself going to a full theater on opening weekend, and maybe even on the second weekend.”
According to Landau, if there’s a lesson to be learned from “Titanic” it’s not to force release dates on movies.
“From a pre-production standpoint, you don’t want to go in with a script that’s not as good as it could be. On the other end, you want to finish at the same level that you shot the movie.”
As it happened, the postponement of the release positioned “Titanic” perfectly for its performance on Oscar night. Films released later in the year invariably do better with Academy voters.
“It was not a factor in our decisions,” said Landau. “I’m just thankful the stars lined up.”
(Chris Petrikin contributed to this report.)