Sunday, February 25, 2007

10 years since the Titanic phenomenon

by Professor Wagstaff

Later this year, it will be 10 years since the release of James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’ which is – despite increasing ticket prices over the past decade - still comfortably the highest grossing film of all time.

And unlike so many modern day high grossing films, it didn’t gain its grosses through a massive marketing campaign and enormous anticipation that ensured, even if it wasn’t particularly well liked, that it would be a massive hit. In fact, as I recall the buildup to the film was quite negative with lots of talk about a troubled production that had seen the budget skyrocket. There was little indication that it would be a major success.

But after its opening, it clearly captured the public’s imagination as it went from being a hit, to a major hit, to a phenomenon. People weren’t just seeing it and recommending it to others, they were seeing it a 2nd and even a 3rd time. To top it all off, it won 11 Oscars.

And yet 10 years late, despite being a film that captured the public’s imagination like few others, its reputation has dwindled in that time. A good statistical example of this is its average rating of 7.0 from the over 124 000 votes on the IMDB site – it’s pretty good there’s very few Best Picture Oscar winners over the past 50 years that would have a lower rating (‘Out of Africa’ is the only one I could find with a lower rating).

But on a broader level, there was a backlash against its massive success as growing segments of people found it an incredibly overwrought, sappy and manipulative film, filled with one-note cardboard characters (Billy Zane’s villain especially so). Specifically critics noted how absurdly idyllic the life of the poor was portrayed and that if it hadn’t been for the Titanic’s sinking, the film implied that DiCaprio and Winslet’s characters would’ve gone on to live a life of harmony despite the vast differences in their backgrounds and personalities.

Also, James Cameron’s performance on Oscar night didn’t help matters. His ‘king of the world’ exclamation became rather infamous but what always stuck in my memory was his self-indulgent request of a few moments of silence in memory for the victim’s of the Titanic. I guess some would say it was well intentioned but there wouldn’t be an Oscar ceremony where an actor or filmmaker could make such a request for the real-life victims portrayed in their film (‘Schindler’s List’ being an obvious example).

One of the reasons why I’m interested in looking back on this film is my personal reaction to it. I went to see it soon after it was released and not only enjoyed but was quite moved by it. In fact, it stayed with me so much that I went to see it again a few weeks later. It’s the only new release film to date that I’ve gone to see more then once during its theatrical run.

However, it is not a film that I’ve maintained an interest in over the years. I haven’t seen it since and don’t really have an interest in watching it again, let alone purchasing it on DVD. When I saw a few minutes of it during a TV screening a while back, it didn’t hold my interest. So it seems my reaction to the film reflects how people overall have reacted to it.

My questions are: what were the qualities in it that made it such a massive hit in the first place and why has its reputation dwindled over the years (or has it)?



Blogger Nick said...

People weren’t just seeing it and recommending it to others, they were seeing it a 2nd and even a 3rd time

I imagine what you're really refering to with "people" are the teenage girls who went to see it not two or three times, but more like seven, fifteen times.

But there were so many factors.

"Highest budget in history" does something for a movie's drawing power. And the fact that, even though I agree with nearly all those criticisms you point out above which still hold true, that last hour of the film is astounding. You really got your money's worth there.

And I think that was the main thing with the film. When you go and pay to see a movie in a theatre you want it to be something memorable. And you really got that here. You got more than three hours of a gigantic budget drama, epic in scope, with something for practically everybody, plus a good cry at the end unless you were heartless.

(I think the blame for movies having become longer and longer over the years lies partly with Titanic.)

The fact that it kept on growing and people liking it more then than they do now also has to do with the horrible word of mouth that preceded it. Everyone thought it was going to be an embarrassing flop, but when people came back from seeing it I think the general reaction was "What? It's good?", creating a snowball effect that eventually impacted the AMPAS as well.

I think.

2/25/2007 07:43:00 AM  
Blogger Count Olaf said...

"Highest budget in history" does something for a movie's drawing power.

That did wonders for Waterworld!

Honestly, though, I think the Titanic was something everyone wanted to see. To go see the movie was also to see the ACTUAL ship in the beginning of the movie. James Cameron helped develop that whole system of cameras with propellers that could go in and around the entire ship. A few handfuls of people had ever been down at those depths to see the wreckage, and for $7 at the movies the average Joe could see it.

Then the painstaking replication of many details. No only were the visual effects state-of-the-art, but the physical sets were astounding. The dining room(s), decks, grand staircase, etc etc etc...the entire ship was almost full-scale. No one except the survivors had seen more than a picture or drawing of the ship.

There has been a cultural fascination, at least in America, with the Titanic ever since it sank. We care, remember, and study about disasters (especially if they involve a ship headed to New York from Southampton) for many years after the fact. I don't know how, but it seems like I have automatically known that there was a boat named Titanic that sank after hitting an iceberg many years ago. Now either Plato is right and I was born with all the knowledge I have and will ever have, or something in my environment brought that knowledge to me.

Just hearing the word "titanic" in 1997 could bring up all of the previous. And to add a movie on top of it was just icing on the cake. Then once people found that the movie was enjoyable, well, everyone had to see it.

Like Oprah's recommendations in her "book of the month club," James Horner's soundtrack became something of a must-have status symbol. Maybe it was purely for Celine's song, maybe not, but it was #1 on the charts for a long time as well, and you didn't want to be caught without it.

I saw it 2 months after the film was released and the theater was packed. TWO MONTHS! It played for 9 months in the US. It clocked in at over 3 hours, so how many times per day could it be shown vs a 2-hour film? Or a 90-minute romantic comedy? The Wedding Singer could play twice as many times (give or take) as Titanic and theoretically make twice as much money, screen for screen. Yet the reverse was happening. While WS pulled in $21m opening weekend, T grabbed close to $40m in its 7th or 8th week. The 2nd definition of phenomenon was invented for this exact situation.

It was extraordinary... remarkable... unexplainable. I personally think it deserved all of its awards and accolades and records and not so much of the backlash (but then, I think the same of Return of the Jedi....I didn't know I was supposed to hate it until I found my way to the Internet). The movie delivered what you wanted and even a little more. It was entertainment that entertained for the duration. Average Joes don't watch 3-hour movies, but this was an exception.

And like Return of the Jedi it's become cool to pour cold water on the whole thing. If you're a Star Wars fan and Empire is not your favorite, there must be something seriously wrong with you. How could you like Teddy Bears? You can be made to feel dumb if you bring up Titanic as being one of your favorite movies. Are you the King of the world? *snicker snicker* heart must go on and on hahahaha.
But people are turning back around. I do see some backlash softening and people admitting to liking parts of it if not the whole.

It was a massive undertaking turned into a visually stunning achievement. And outside of re-release trickery or $30 ticket prices, I don't know that its record(s) will soon be broken.

2/26/2007 01:49:00 AM  
Blogger jaydro said...

I've already said what I thought of Titanic: I hated it.
I would rate it about even with The Hindenburg, though I haven't seen that one in forever, and it wasn't nearly as disappointing because I didn't expect as much. And of course, it didn't dominate the Oscars. No great love story for the teenage girls, either, but it did have Nazis!

Just a few reactions: Titanic is only the most recent mega-blockbuster, but sits in the lower half of the all-time top ten when adjusted for inflation or just by estimated tickets sold (wonder what the list looks like when you take out rereleases?). The '70's and '80's seemed to be full of blockbusters in comparison.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I thought Titanic had a huge marketing campaign at the time. A new multiplex that opened that year had a giant cardboard stern of the ship sticking up from the floor of the middle of the lobby, with the original missed release date on it--it was there for many many months. There was a lot of negative news about it, but there was a lot of general anticipation among the public, too.

Anyway, for me seeing The Hindenburg on the big screen was more of a thrill than the Titanic because while we have cruise ships larger than that now, we have nothing to compare with the 1930's golden age of airships.

And I was something of a Titanic fan, having been captivated by Clive Cussler's novel Raise the Titanic and then colossally disappointed in its film version. At some point I also read Walter Lord's A Night to Remember. I knew the correct song the orchestra was playing as the ship went down. I had the CD of Gavin Bryars' The Sinking of the Titanic.

So maybe I was too much of a fan for James Cameron, whom I've come to believe is a pretty shallow filmmaker, to please me. I mean, I liked Terminator, but I've mostly disliked, been unimpressed, or just frustrated with his other films, though they can have their moments.

Oh, and I'm a Star Wars fan and Empire isn't my favorite, but neither is Return of the Jedi: Star Wars is. So there.

2/27/2007 06:17:00 PM  
Blogger Count Olaf said...

Oh, and I'm a Star Wars fan and Empire isn't my favorite, but neither is Return of the Jedi: Star Wars is. So there.

You'd still be given more of a pass than I would....

2/28/2007 11:09:00 AM  
Blogger Nick said...

Empire is the cynical, black-hearted of the original trilogy, so therefore all the 'cool' people like it. Like me!

But on the other hand, one could argue that fighting over which is the 'cooler' Star Wars film is like fighting over who has the coolest Transformer toy. Maybe it shouldn't enter into the equation.

That did wonders for Waterworld!

Well, it was the only reason I saw it, anyway.

2/28/2007 12:23:00 PM  

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