An audience with the King of the World

Peering into the future, we can imagine not one, not two, but four studios under the thumb of James Cameron and his newest opus.

THIS COLUMN DOESN’T USUALLY compete for “scoops,” but the following story was too juicy to pass up, as it concerns the Man of the Hour, James Cameron.

Two days after his “Titanic” won 11 Oscars, I’ve learned that Cameron has quietly closed a deal on his next picture, “Spider-Man.” A source close to Cameron explained that this project was selected in part because four companies claim partial ownership of the basic material. Under his deal, Cameron therefore has invited all four to co-finance his film since, the source said, “having only two studios backing him, as with ‘Titanic,’ has proven too restrictive.” “Titanic” was co-funded only by 20th Century Fox and Paramount.

Though the project is still in its infancy, it’s been learned that a production executive has already been selected by the four companies to represent them on “Spider-Man,” and an initial creative meeting with Cameron has been held. While the production executive asked me not to disclose his name, he filled in these details about the initial meeting.

MR. CAMERON DECIDED we’d rent the old Chasen’s for a quiet drink,” the executive said. “Mr. Cameron arrived five minutes late and shook my hand. Since I had never met him before, I asked how I might address him during this and subsequent meetings. He replied, ‘I think that should be obvious. You may call me King of the World. Or simply King, once we get to know each other.’

“I then asked him whether his staff had prepared any initial budget figures relative to ‘Spider-Man.’ He froze me with a steely look, then reminded me that he never started business meetings without first holding a minute of silent prayer in memory of the victims of the Titanic. I realized the appropriateness of this gesture, but it was then, I’m afraid, I made my first faux pas.”

“What was that?” I asked.

“Well, I said to him, ‘Could we also have a moment of prayer for the companies putting up the money for your next movie?’ I meant this as a joke — friends tell me I have a good sense of humor.”

“How did Cameron react?”

“He was cool. He said simply, ‘I plan to have you replaced with another production executive.’ ”

“And did that end the meeting?”

“No. I decided to grovel a bit. I said, ‘King, I would appreciate a second chance. This represents a big opportunity for me. It would be a great honor to work for the man who made the most expensive — I mean, the most successful — movie of all time.’ ”

“And was he placated?”

“At least he moved on to the next item of business. He stated that since he had written, directed, produced, edited and composed the music for ‘Titanic,’ he wanted that made clear in the credits of his next picture. There would be no other names. It would just state, ‘A film by James Cameron.’ ”

“The guilds would have something to say about that,” I suggested.

“I just nodded and took notes. Next, he moved on to his deal. Since the biggest movie star in the world has now reached the $25 million level, he’s decided to demand $30 million upfront, against 30% of the gross. I’m afraid I gulped at this point. That brought on that icy stare again. ‘Did you say something?’ he asked. ‘No, it’s just cold in here — we’re the only people in this enormous restaurant. That was just a shiver you saw.’ ”

” ‘If you shiver in here, you should have seen what it was like being underwater all day,’ he said. ‘Then you’d shiver.’ Cameron’s body seemed to swell as he reflected back on his ‘Titanic’ shoot, like a general recalling an immense victory.”

“Did you raise the issue of penalties if he goes over budget?” I asked.

THE EXECUTIVE LOOKED AT ME as if I were hallucinating. “I tried, but I think there’s a language problem with the word ‘overage,’ ” he said. “Cameron — I mean, King — wants to be rewarded for overages. He argues that when he exceeds the budget, this shows the movie will be that much more commercial. Hence for every $20 million he goes over, he wants to be rewarded with another 5% of the gross.”

Now it was my turn to gulp. “That means that if he doubles his budget as he did last time out, he would end up with over 50% of the gross?”

“I don’t mean to suggest that he’s uncompromising,” the executive put in. “I mean, he implied there would be a lid. A silver lining for his financiers to cling to.”

“And a completion guarantee? Any thought about that?”

“The King suggested the Fed.” He shrugged helplessly, realizing that this was becoming somewhat surreal. “He feels he is a national treasure, that he has single-handedly saved the U.S. film industry, so that in return the Federal Reserve Bank should step up and cover overages.”

I started to ask another question, but the executive was clearly becoming nervous. “Look, I can’t tell you anything more. I have to report to my four employers, you know. Then I have to get back to the King. I mean, this thing is moving fast.”

“I understand completely,” I said. “Thanks for the information. I can’t wait to see the movie.”

“I’m sure the Federal Reserve Bank feels the same way,” he said.

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