Raising Titanic: The World of Communication & the Creation of One of the World's Most Succesful Films

By Ryan A. Piccirillo
2010, Vol. 2 No. 03 | pg. 1/3 |

Twentieth Century Fox was right to question the likelihood of box-office success for James Cameron’s $200 million film Titanic: “an Edwardian period piece, a costume film, a romance, a story whose ending was known – and a ‘downer’ so to speak” had grim chances for success with audiences of the 1990s (Sandler and Studlar 1-4). However, on Friday, December 19, 1997, audiences flooded movie theaters in unprecedented numbers to see a film of unprecedented magnitude.

Before its close nearly a year later, audiences would spend close to two billion dollars worldwide to see the film, shattering box office records and obliterating the studio’s expectations. It would go on to win eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. Its success leaves one to wonder how a film seemingly destined for failure could end up redefining what it means to be a blockbuster.

Titanic Movie Poster

When one studies Titanic’s conception, production, and release, it becomes evident that the film’s success is largely due to the intertwined efforts of communication professionals not only in the film industry, but also in journalism, marketing research, and advertising, working with a variety of evolving media to drive public interest.

James Cameron, Twentieth Century Fox, and Titanic

By the mid-1990s, James Cameron was already a filmmaker of considerable clout. Director and screenwriter of critical and box-office successes for Twentieth Century Fox such as The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), and True Lies (1994), it was a clear-cut fact: James Cameron could make movies. However, it would take more than a good reputation to get Fox to back Cameron’s ambitious plans for Titanic, a far departure from his past science-fiction and action successes.

In an interview with Playboy, Cameron admits he made the film because he “wanted to dive to the shipwreck, not because [he] particularly wanted to make the movie” (Playboy). Inspired by deep-sea IMAX productions and a fascination with shipwrecks, Cameron was determined to include actual footage of the Titanic wreck as a framing device in his film. He negotiated with a Russian research organization, the Shirshov Institute of Oceanology, to sponsor his deep-sea expedition. Arguing that it “might be of some scientific benefit, [he] won official approval to charter the Keldysh,” a scientific research vessel (Parisi 30). Newly motivated, Cameron took the idea for Titanic to Fox in 1995.

When Cameron pitched his idea for “Romeo and Juliet on a boat” to Fox executives, he was met with skepticism (Parisi 34). Cameron was known for sci-fi action films, not romances, and the potential budget needed for such a project was intimidating. Cameron argued that the publicity that would be generated by diving to shoot the wreckage of Titanic would produce public interest in the project.

Without officially green lighting the film, Fox sent Cameron on his way with two million dollars to shoot the deep see footage with the Keldysh. Optimistic and determined, Cameron immediately began writing the script for. Months later, he returned to the studio with footage from the dive and a shooting script. Impressed with the footage, the executives asked Cameron to present a budget for the project. After analyzing his script, Cameron concluded that the film’s ambitious requirements landed the budget well over $100 million, a far cry from an original $75 million estimate. Without any other major releases scheduled for summer 1997, the executives at Twentieth Century Fox reluctantly gave Cameron the green light for Titanic (Parisi 92-94).

Cameron had been hailed as a filmmaking virtuoso and denigrated as a control-freak. As such, Cameron took a directing, screenwriting, editing, and producing credit, alongside fellow producer Jon Landau and executive producer Rae Sanchini. Early in the planning stages, Cameron and his fellow producers realized the logistics of filming this epic would be daunting; the most cost-effective way to go about shooting the film was to construct a studio catered its specific needs. Fox constructed the 40-acre studio on the coast of Baja, California, which included a 17-million gallon tank and a 775-foot reconstruction of Titanic.

The Baja studio, expensive special effects, and an ever expanding shooting schedule drove the cost higher and higher as production progressed (Parisi 89-94). Titanic’s budget would eventually soar over $200 million, making it the most expensive film ever made after the 1995 picture Waterworld, a box-office flop. After negotiations with Universal Studios fell through, Fox partnered with Paramount Pictures to finance and distribute the film (Parisi 106-112). Fox executive Bill Mechanic explains:

"We did not go in thinking we were making a low budget movie. We didn’t even think the budget would be contained, which is why it’s the only movie we’ve split rights on in three years, because you really don’t know, and if it went over budget, as it did, you didn’t want to be shouldering that responsibility alone." (Parisi 111)

Cameron, under pressure from the studios to control the soaring cost of his project, forfeited salaries for directing, producing, and editing, and settled for the screenwriting salary alone (IMDB).

After years of planning and negotiations, months of shooting, and hundreds of millions of dollars, Cameron finally got his film made. However, for Titanic to be a commercial success required more than the efforts of individuals in the film industry. The months preceding and following its release define the intertwined nature of the world of communication; individuals working in intersecting communication fields inadvertently made the film the biggest box-office success in history.

Enfotainment, Critics, and Titanic

Even before production wrapped, important people in the media were encouraging public discussion of Titanic. Big budget spectacles historically generate buzz, and Titanic was no exception. Furthermore, a newly engendered public interest in entertainment news would earn Titanic a great deal of audience-building media attention. Coupled with critical reception, this would skyrocket Titanic to the top of the box-office upon release.

Media scholars attribute the press’ positive reaction to Titanic to “the track record of Cameron and […] to the public’s strong appetite for enfotainment, in the 1990s” (Wyatt and Vlesmas 39). The phenomenon of enfotainment, the public’s newfound interest in show business gossip and information, was, according to James Twitchell, “the result of the surge of delivery systems of entertainment in the late 1980’s: home video, cable, compact disks, and an audience eager to know not merely ‘what’s on’ but ‘what’s in’” (Wyatt and Vlesmas 40).

The public demand for entertainment news enabled journalists in the early 1990s to cover films like Titanic in depth, leading to entertainment news programs such as Entertainment Tonight. Additionally, the Internet was gaining new traction in the early 1990s, putting entertainment news at the fingertips of consumers. Justin Wyatt and Katherine Vlesmas describe the advantages enfotainment offers studios:

"The tent pole strategy that lies at the core of contemporary studio production meshes perfectly with the rise of entertainment industry news in the past two decades: entertainment journalists are able to report on big-budget tent pole movies in production or in planning stages to generate interest and gossip for a film." (Wyatt and Vlesmas 40)

It is no surprise that the production of Titanic was of interest to journalists at the time; not only did it have an enormous budget, but, as Cameron had predicted, the deep-sea dive to the wreckage proved newsworthy. Additionally the special effects and Baja studio facility developed for the film were groundbreaking, and though costly, proved to be investments. Ironically, the grim reception expected for the film helped to build public interest as well:

"The specific ‘story’ originally created within the press suggests the negatives of Titanic: a budget growing higher and higher, an auteur known for his dictatorial style given freedom due to his commercial track record, and a project that appears to be a tent pole for studio production but lacks some of the usual components, like stars and a bankable genre." (Wyatt and Vlesmas 41)

The story and scandal of Titanic’s production was the perfect story for entertainment journalists to share with American consumers who craved sensational entertainment news; and so they did, and inadvertently built the project an enormous audience.

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