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In the Wake of Titanic

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It was too huge, the skeptics warned. Too unwieldy to control, too heavy to float, too sprawling to steer. In short, a disaster waiting to happen.

They were talking about Titanic the motion picture, of course, not Titanic the ship — but the two do have lots in common. Both were the largest of their time (882 feet for the vessel, $200 million for the film) and both were launched into treacherous, icy waters (the North Atlantic for one, the crowded Christmas movie season for the other). The difference, of course, is that the ocean liner sank.

The film definitely hasn’t. So far it’s grossed $275 million domestically and another $217 million overseas. After a month in theaters, it’s still No. 1 at the box office, still raking in cash at a fantastic rate ($25-35 million a week in the U.S., as much as $50 million internationally). As this article is being written, it’s the 10th biggest domestic hit ever; by the time you’ve finished reading it, Titanic will have probably jumped past Home Alone and Independence Day to become the 7th. If this keeps up, in just a few more months it will be the most successful film in history, the first ever to approach the global billion-dollar mark during its initial release.

Numbers like these tend to get noticed in Hollywood. In fact, numbers like these grab Hollywood by the collar, shake it senseless, and leave it quivering in its Gucci loafers. It’s not just the sheer size of the profits that’s causing shock waves — although those figures grow even bigger when you include tie-ins, like the Titanic album (the first mostly instrumental soundtrack to hit No. 1 on the charts since 1981) and the Titanic book (No. 1 in its second week on the New York Times paperback best-seller list), as well as future video sales (don’t expect to rent it until at least fall ’98) and TV rights (NBC reportedly paid $30 million to air it in 2000). It’s also the speed with which the film has sucked up all those millions, not to mention the movie’s startling staying power.

”A normal action-adventure movie drops 20 or 30 percent after its opening weekend,” says James Cameron, who may now have dethroned Steven Spielberg as the world’s most powerful director. ”Titanic has hardly fallen at all. Some weeks it’s actually gone up. At this rate, we’re going to be the No. 1 film of all time in a couple of months — unless there’s a nuclear war or something.”

Let’s pack all the Titanic clichés into a single sentence and put it this way: The film is unsinkable, steaming full speed into the record books, with all of Hollywood swimming nervously in its mighty wake — and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Right now, all over L.A., dazed studio executives are studying the movie’s mesmerizing box office reports. They’re trying to figure out what it all means and, more important, how not to — here comes another cliché — miss the boat next time. What strategies are they devising? What lessons are they learning? As always, some are good, some are bad, and some are very, very expensive.