Why the Ship Won't Sink

March 31, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Originally, I was going to post this tomorrow. Upon remembering that April 1 is not the best day to post anything, I decided to get it up today. So don't expect any postings tomorrow. I'll take April Fool's Day off - that way no one will have to wonder whether there's a practical joke to be uncovered on this site.

Not long ago, I was reluctant to discuss a film's box office receipts, reasoning that the weekend grosses didn't represent a sporting event where there were "winners" and "losers." Over the months and years, however, I have modified my approach, giving way to the inevitable. Box office dollars have become a big deal. People bet on them. People talk about them. They're a legitimate news story. I still wonder why sometimes, though.

One question I occasionally get (and sometimes ignore) is how long I think it will be before a movie knocks Titanic off the perch of all-time domestic box office champion ($600 million). My answer: perhaps never. Titanic was, in box office terms, a "perfect storm." It had the nostalgia element, so it appealed to older viewers. It was a serious drama, so it appealed to adults. It featured cool special effects and a sinking ship, so it appealed to teenage boys. And it had Leonardo DiCaprio, so it appealed to teenage girls (who saw it time after time after time). I can't think of another movie that reached so many different demographics. Romance, adventure, nudity, death, disaster, cutting edge special effects - Cameron's film had something for everyone.

When it opened, five months late (it was originally slated for the July 4 weekend, then pulled when Cameron pronounced that the effects needed more work), it didn't look like a box-office juggernaut. During its first week out, it fought the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies tooth-and-nail for first place (Titanic won, $28.6 million to $25.1 million). The week after that - Christmas week - it exploded, raking in $60 million between December 24 and December 30. Most experts credit girls for keeping the film afloat. Females in the 13-17 year old range didn't only see the movie once or twice - many returned week after week. The film's total gross is all the more astounding when you consider that it's more than three hours long, meaning fewer showings per theater per day.

Since Titanic, nothing has come close to the $500 million mark. That includes the highly anticipated Star Wars prequels, a trilogy of ground-breaking Lord of the Rings epics, and a couple of Spider-Man movies. If none of those could do it, it raises the question of: What can? Especially now, with more people than ever waiting for the DVD release, it would be tough for anything to assail Mount $600 Million. One could make an argument that, 25 years from now, when ticket prices are $25 per admission, some blockbuster might slip past Titanic, but that assumes that the movie industry won't change much in the next quarter century. In fact, it's likely that cinematic entertainment will be very different in 2030 than it is today.

Of course, I could be misreading audiences, but I don't think so. In fact, if Titanic arrived in theaters today, it wouldn't come close to making what it did in 1997. In nine years, multiplexes have undergone fundamental changes. They are teen-dominated in a way they weren't last decade. The home video market, which was only a fraction of the theatrical market in 1997, has exploded, turning the cinematic release into a preview for the DVD. Titanic's perfect storm has passed, and it doesn't look like conditions will be right for another one any time in the near future.