Through pure dollars and cents, it would be hard to claim that Titanic is still the biggest movie of all time. It had a good run, certainly: For a dozen years, nothing approached the enormous domestic and international box office of James Cameron’s Oscar-winning epic about the unsinkable ship that sank. But then came Avatar, Cameron’s other overlong, over-budget, state-of-the-art adventure romance, which quickly surpassed the titanic earnings of Titanic in both the United States and the rest of the world. Eight years later, Avatar is still the global champ. Here in the states, the title now belongs to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, with poor Leo and Kate now floating in the icy waters of third place. Even inflation can’t save Titanic’s top spot in the record books: It’s squarely no. 5 when you adjust the grosses, sandwiched between E.T. and The Ten Commandments on the list of all-time hits.
So, no, Titanic isn’t king of the world anymore. Except maybe it is, at least on a more fundamental level. Maybe there’s still a case to be made for the super-sized disaster weepie as the ultimate multiplex sensation—a phenomenon that dominated the public imagination in a way that Avatar or The Force Awakens never could. To understand why Titanic remains special, you have to look past the total sum of money it earned, even relative to changing ticket prices. You have to look to a different kind of box-office record, one that hasn’t been equaled since and maybe never will be. You have to remember that Titanic was the no. 1 movie in America for 15 consecutive weeks.
Just stop and think about that for a second. Fifteen weeks. That’s almost four straight months. Titanic hit theaters in December of 1997, coming in first place at the box office its opening weekend. It then just sat there at the top of the charts until April of the following year. Every week brought a new crop of movies, hopefully released into hundreds or more theaters across the country. And every week, Americans made the joint decision to just see Titanic again instead.
There was precedence for this kind of magic run. It happened more often in the ’80s, when huge smashes like Beverly Hills Cop and Tootsie became similarly inescapable, each winning more than a dozen weekends straight. (It’s no coincidence that those films, like Cameron’s, opened in December; given Hollywood’s historic tendency to treat the early weeks of the year like a dumping ground for undesirable projects, it makes sense that a highly beloved movie could bulldoze from Christmas straight through the spring.) Titanic was really the last of this kind of hot-streak hit. No movie since has monopolized American movie culture in quite the same way.
It’s hard to remember now, but Titanic was by no means a sure thing. Quite to the contrary, many saw a box-office flop waiting to happen, which makes the film itself a kind of inverted RMS Titanic: a massive object that swerved out of the way of certain disaster. Shooting went almost a month over schedule and the budget kept ballooning, until Cameron found himself at the helm of what was then the most expensive movie ever made. Leaked anecdotes from set emphasized injuries, temper tantrums, and a nearly mutinous crew, painting a picture of a project that had spun wildly out of control—an impression only reinforced when Paramount scrapped its original summer release date, pushing Titanic back to mid-December to accommodate expensive effects work. Because of its bad buzz, inflated price tag, and aquatic themes, Waterworld became the natural point of premature comparison. Iceberg jokes were also plentiful.
Most of today’s biggest hits open huge, racking up a decent chunk of their total grosses in their first weekend. Titanic, once the biggest hits of all time, didn’t even log the biggest first weekend of the year. (Scream 2 did better out the gate. Flubber almost did!) Opening on December 19, 1997, Titanic squeaked past the second of the Pierce Brosnan James Bond films, Tomorrow Never Dies, for a very solid but not enormous $28.6 million debut. Had it tapered off the way most theatrical releases do—losing more and more viewers every weekend—there’s no way Paramount and Fox would ever have recouped the then-unheard-of $200 million they spent on it. But by the end of its second weekend, Titanic had made an additional $35.4 million—significantly more than what it managed in the first. The film wasn’t just holding but growing its audience.
What Cameron had made was the rarest of Hollywood hits: a big-budget movie propelled by word of mouth. Rather than the steady or steep decline in ticket sales that greet most wide releases, Titanic ebbed and flowed, losing patronage one weekend, only to gain it back and then some the next. Its biggest weekend was its fifth. Its biggest single day was in February. Glowing reviews threw more coal into the engines. So, too, did a record-tying 14 Oscar nominations, as well as the film’s subsequent (and borderline inevitable) Best Picture win.
Titanic was a symbiotic pop-culture event, one that made people rich and famous, then minted money off of their fame and riches. Leonardo DiCaprio, the baby-faced 23-year-old who played stowaway lothario Jack Dawson, transformed overnight into the world’s biggest heartthrob; Titanic may have sparked Leo Mania, but it also benefitted from it, hundreds of fan sites keeping the movie’s flame lit, to say nothing of the entertainment magazines that sold copies and movie tickets by sticking DiCaprio and his Oscar-nominated costar, Kate Winslet, on the cover. There was also “My Heart Will Go On,” the soaring ballad written by composer James Horner and performed by Celine Dion. It would become not just the biggest hit of Dion’s career, but also one of the best-selling singles of all time, and its constant rotation on the radio functioned like a siren call, drawing returning fans and first-timers to the film.
For someone interested in the movie business, Titanic’s unprecedented steamrolling of the competition held a breathless fascination. Week after week, new box-office challengers fell to its enduring popularity; trying to guess which movie would finally dethrone it became a game that a lot of people (and studios) lost, over and over again. U.S. Marshals, a sequel to The Fugitive that approximately no one remembers today, came close. But the biggest “almost” was, appropriately and not surprisingly, The Man In The Iron Mask, a loose Alexandre Dumas adaptation featuring DiCaprio in a dual role. In a photo finish, the movie came within a few hundred thousand dollars of Titanic in mid-March; perhaps it might have won the weekend if its suddenly famous star didn’t spend so much of his screen time under, well, an iron mask.
Famously, it was the dreadful big-screen reboot of Lost In Space, featuring Matt LeBlanc and a lot of shitty CGI, that finally knocked Titanic out of first place. But Cameron’s movie still stuck around, playing in theaters until the fall, picking up stragglers and inspiring multiple viewings from fans for most of 1998. And nothing has come within spitting distance of those 15 triumphant weeks at the top, that four months of unrivaled viewership. Only one film released since has gone no. 1 for more than even a month straight—and even Avatar could only hold down the top spot from December until the beginning of February. What is it about Titanic that made it so unstoppable for so long? And why hasn’t any movie pulled a comparable coup in its 20-year wake?
Part of it has to be demographic appeal. Titanic is something close to the platonic ideal of the “four-quadrant movie.” Yes, much has been made of the way Cameron won the adoration and repeat business of teenage girls, maybe the most coveted demo of them all. (Take it from someone who was in junior high when Titanic opened: There were young women who saw this movie five, six, seven times during its first run.) But to reduce the film to a teen-girl craze is to ignore the Venn diagram of potential ticket-buyers Cameron courted. Titanic roped in blockbuster enthusiasts, drawn by the scale of the production and the promise of eye-popping special effects. It lured the kind of action junkies Cameron used to exclusively cater to, the fans of rollicking spectacles like Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. History buffs, classic-movie fans, and romantics of all ages went in droves, joined by those intrigued by the rave reviews and Oscar attention. And of course there was the central morbidity of its true story—the appeal to those who just wanted to see a boatload of characters go to watery graves. Titanic hooked young and old, girls and boys, men and women.
It reached so many people, in fact, that its success started feeding into its success.The more of a phenomenon it became, the more you had to see it and make it a bigger one. (There were, of course, those for whom not seeing it became a badge of honor.) But that’s been true of lots of blockbusters of the 21st century, from The Dark Knight to the new Beauty And The Beast—and the FOMO might be even worse now, as social media has only amplified that feeling of everyone talking about a movie.
What’s dramatically changed since Titanic conquered the world is the sheer volume of giant tentpole productions being made by Hollywood and the time of year they traditionally open. Back in 1997 and early 1998, the industry model hadn’t yet shifted to studios putting their eggs in fewer baskets—to execs green-lighting less mid-budget projects in favor of a few big-budget ones. One reason Titanic could run wild across the whole spring movie season was because there was nothing comparable standing in its way, just a lot of smaller-scale comedies, dramas, and thrillers. The popcorn spectacles, the falling-meteor and rampaging-kaiju flicks that might actually eat into Titanic’s profits, were relegated to the summer, when so-called event movies used to almost exclusively open. These days, the summer movie season runs year round.
So maybe the real reason no movie has captured America’s hearts and minds the way Titanic did—looming large over pop culture for four long months, feeling like the only film anyone was seeing or talking about—is that every third movie released by Hollywood today is essentially a wannabe Titanic, in scope if not ambition. It’s telling that Lost In Space was the film that ended up knocking it from its perch atop the box-office; it was one of the only massively budgeted studio pictures to hit theaters between December of 1997 and May of 1998. Imagine if Titanic had opened this past December. It would have run smack into superheroes, a giant ape, and a lavish Disney remake by early February. No movie is king of the world for long nowadays.