James Cameron tries to raise the "Titanic" and recoup his nine-figure budget

Even in the wake of Waterworld, Hollywood is convinced that it’s safe to go back in the deep end. Case in point: director James Cameron’s blockbuster wannabe Titanic, now shooting in Mexico and scheduled for release in July, which is well on its way to becoming the costliest movie ever made. True, the public’s curiosity about the 1912 disaster runs deep (there’s even a Broadway musical account set to open in the spring), but with a budget already soaring somewhere between $125 million and $180 million (not including the cost of constructing the Mexican studio), Titanic‘s voyage is a full-throttle sink-or-swim venture.

”It’s startling to think that a film needs to take in between $150 million and $200 million just to see daylight,” says media analyst Harold Vogel of Cowen & Co. ”If this one backfires, it’s going to backfire in a major way.”

That explains why Paramount and Twentieth Century Fox split costs on the film right down the middle. ”At this level, it’s just a roll of the dice,” says Fox Filmed Entertainment CEO and chairman Bill Mechanic. ”But this is not a business of playing it safe.” Certainly not in this case. Instead of using a Schwarzenegger or Stallone to lure the important international audiences, the historical disaster drama stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Bill Paxton, and up-and-comer Kate Winslet.

But as Cameron proved in True Lies and his Terminator movies, he will probably deliver some bang for the megabucks. The set features a 750-foot-long, six-story-high re-creation of the Titanic facade, which tilts on hydraulic lifts. And Titanic will include footage of the actual wreckage obtained by the director, who ventured 12,378 feet below sea level in a submersible for the sake of his art. ”There’s not a penny being spent that’s not on the screen,” Mechanic says. ”We’ll just have to wait for the public to decide whether that was silly on our part or smart.” Let’s hope they budgeted in a few extra lifeboats — just in case.