Sunday, December 20, 2009

Revisiting Titanic

Box office numbers are news under two circumstances. When a movie's opening is huge or its budget is.

Back on December 19, 1997, the most expensive movie up to that point was released. There had been a lot of noise about Titanic's budget, a whopping $200 million. And that's before marketing. It was estimated that Titanic would have to pull in over a half billion dollars worldwide before it even sniffed making a profit. Considering that it was an epic romance, people were questioning the studios' judgment in taking such a risk. There had only been 8 eight movies at that point to pull in that kind of money and six of them featured either aliens (E.T., Star Wars, Independence Day, Men in Black) or dinosaurs (Jurassic Park, Lost World). The other two were The Lion King and Forrest Gump. Titanic, on the other hand, did not have the names Lucas, Spielberg, Disney, Smith or Hanks attached to it. (Side note: Considering Jeff Goldblum starred in 3 of those, why isn't he a bigger star?)

Leonardo DiCaprio was not a household name. Kate Winslet did have an Oscar nomination under her belt, but wasn't exactly a big ticket seller. Who was the biggest name actor in Titanic? Billy Zane? Kathy Bates? Bill Paxton? Not what you would call star wattage. No, the biggest name attached to Titanic was James Cameron. A name that has been mentioned for too many times in his career with the phrase, "most expensive movie ever made." With the release of Avatar, I think this is the fourth time in his career he's held that distinction. Oh, the good old days when people screamed bloody murder over The Abyss' $80 million budget.

People forget that opening weekend for Titanic. You'll hear it mentioned on the news over the next 24 hours, Avatar's $73 million opening and what it means. How it was the second biggest December opening ever (ironically, Will Smith owns that record too.) But it's funny how people don't remember Titanic's opening weekend numbers. Titanic also had the second biggest December opening. Not of all time. Of 1997. The biggest December opening of 1997 happened the week before with a $32 million opening weekend for Scream 2. Titanic opened with $28 million. And executives at Fox and Paramount were panicking. A $28 million opening usually means a domestic box office of about $100 million. $100 million domestic usually means about $150 foreign. $250 worldwide means the studio will get about $125 million. And when you're movie cost $200 million to make and about $100 million to market, a $125 million return on a $300 million investment will NOT please your shareholders. Those kind of numbers end careers and sometimes entire studios. And when you're huge budget movie barely beats the new James Bond (Tomorrow Never Dies opened at $25 million), you're kind of screwed.

Then something interesting happened. You see, Titanic did $28 million over 3 days. That's just under $10 million a day. Now, when a movie makes $28 million in its opening weekend, it usually makes the same the over the four days following. Then in weekend #2, the movie will do about half what it made its first weekend. Theoretically, by the end of weekend #2, Titanic would have made around $70 million. By December 28, Titanic had made $88 million. Nearly 20% higher than expected based on the opening weekend. And things were looking up.

Neither Titanic's first or second weekends were anything extraordinary. Weekend #3 is STILL the fifth highest 3rd weekend of all-time. And on top of that, Titanic made $70 million the Monday-Sunday after weekend #2. Yes, all of a sudden, Titanic was averaging $10 million a day. Weekend #3 was actually $5 million HIGHER than opening weekend. That was unheard of.

Weekend #4? The highest 4th weekend of all time at $28.7 million. But Monday through Sunday, Titanic only made $40 million. A huge slowdown, probably because kids were back in school. The film still hadn't crossed the $200 million plateau.

Well, it didn't take the kids long to head back to Titanic. Weekend #5 (again, the biggest ever) saw Titanic back above $30 million again. To put it in perspective, the second highest grossing film of all-time, The Dark Knight, did $16 million in its fifth weekend when the average ticket price was $3 higher! That's how huge Titanic was at the time. Even with school back in, the Monday-Sunday was nearly $50 million.

Titanic also holds the record for:
Weekend #6 ($25.2 million. 2nd place? The Sixth Sense with $16.5)
Weekend #7 ($25.9 million, it went UP. 2nd place? Passion of the Christ at $15.2)
Weekend #8 ($23.0., followed by Home Alone, $12.6)
Weekend #9 ($32.8 million, Valentine's Day weekend, Home Alone in 2nd again with $9.8) Weekend #10 ($21.0 million, Slumdog Millionaire is #2 with $12.0)
Weekend #11 ($19.6, finally a weekend below $20 million. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is #2 with $8.4)
Weekend #12 ($17.6, Home Alone in 2nd again with $8.2)

They don't really keep track beyond that since most films don't remain in theaters much longer than 3 months. But considering Titanic was still doing better than $10 million per weekend for another FOUR weeks, it's unlikely any film even challenges it. Titanic's final weekend above $10 million was also it's first weekend where it wasn't number one at the box office, losing out to Lost in Space. Which holds a similar distinction to being the one who beat Ken Jennings. No one remembers who beat Titanic, just that it was eventually beaten.

Another amazing statistic about Titanic's numbers: To make it on the list of the biggest 12th week grosses, a film would need to make $3.5 million. That's in week TWELVE. The first weekend that Titanic DIDN'T make that much was in week number TWENTY-TWO! That's two and a half months later! By then, Titanic had made $577 million in the U.S. alone. That's over $100 million more than Star Wars and the Special Edition made combined. And the sick part is that Titanic went on to make ANOTHER $23 million before finally going away. $600 million in the U.S. alone. $1.8 BILLION worldwide. To this day, the second biggest worldwide gross (Lord of the Rings: Return of the King) is over $700 million short of James Cameron's bohemoth.


The only movie to break the $600 million barrier. Until The Dark Knight last year, the only movie to even break $500 million. If Titanic had sold the same number of tickets for the price that people paid to see The Dark Knight, it would have made $921 million at the box office.

When people say something is of "Titanic proportions", I can't help but wonder if they're referring to the boat or the movie.

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