Titanic Winslet Dicaprio

The 3-D redux of James Cameron's 1997 epic Titanic opened to an estimated $4.4 million on Wednesday, or $4.7 million if you include its Tuesday-night preview showings. That's a solid but not spectacular start to Titanic 3D's voyage, which is likely on pace for a weekend gross of about $20 million (and a five-day tally of around $30 million).

Keep in mind that these are early projections, but let's assume for a moment that Titanic 3D does collect $30 million during its first five days, and therefore finishes its theatrical run with at least $70 million. In that scenario, was the 3-D re-release worth it? Was Cameron justified in spending $18 million and 60 weeks to convert the film into three dimensions? In this case, the answer would be yes. But that doesn't mean it will be "yes" for every blockbuster itching to find an excuse to return to the silver screen.

Titanic 3D was on the pricey side of 3-D conversions — most cost closer to an estimated $10 million, while Disney claims to have spent less than $10 million on The Lion King 3D and Beauty and the Beast 3D. But factor in typical marketing costs (say $15 million) and the fact that studios only receive about half of theatrical grosses, and these 3-D re-releases ultimately need to gross at least $50 million to turn a meaningful profit. Titanic 3D should pass that mark, as did The Lion King 3D ($94.2 million).

However, both Beauty and the Beast 3D ($47.4 million) and Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace 3D ($43.3 million) didn't quite reach $50 million. I wouldn't say Disney or Fox lost money on those two 3-D conversions, especially since the re-releases likely led to a spike in DVD and Blu-ray sales. But for this trend of 3-D reissues to continue, more movies will need to perform like The Lion King than like Beauty and the Beast and The Phantom Menace.

Back when The Lion King 3D opened to an unexpected $30.2 million last September, I wondered whether this was the dawn of the 3-D reissue. Since then, 3-D re-releases of Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., The Little Mermaid, and Jurassic Park have been announced, and we're still waiting for that 3-D version of Top Gun to land sometime this year. Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc., Jurassic Park, and Top Gun seem like prime choices for 3-D conversions.

I'm a bit more skeptical regarding The Little Mermaid. It's a wonderful movie, but as I suggested last September, the studios need to focus on the crème de la crème of blockbusters. For instance, consider how The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast performed in 3-D. The Lion King's 3-D gross of $94.2 million represented 16 percent of the $584.3 million it earned during its original theatrical release (when adjusted for inflation), and Beauty and the Beast wound up with 17 percent of its adjusted original gross ($47.4 million in 3-D vs. $273.8 million). The two animated films walked away with almost exactly the same 3-D proportion: 16 or 17 percent.

If you figure The Little Mermaid will also bring in 16 or 17 percent of its original adjusted-for-inflation gross ($161 million), you're looking at a potential 3-D tally of just $27 million. And that's assuming the movie doesn't perform more like The Phantom Menace — its 3-D reissue made only 6.5 percent of its original adjusted gross. Of course, The Phantom Menace wasn't adored the way the aforementioned Disney and Pixar movies were, and that may partly account for its underwhelming 3-D performance.

The studios could run into trouble if they start re-releasing middle-tier blockbusters, causing the amount of 3-D re-releases to swell to the point where audiences tire of the trend. If Hollywood is to succeed here, the studios need to be selective and pick only the smashes that are universally beloved and would genuinely benefit from a 3-D conversion. We're talking about the original Star Wars trilogy, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Aladdin, The Matrix, someday the Harry Potter films, and maybe a few older masterpieces like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Lawrence of Arabia.

And, yes, Titanic was an appropriate choice for 3-D. Even if it follows the Phantom Menace trajectory and winds up earning only 6.5 percent of its original adjusted gross, that computes to a solid $65 million. Titanic 3D should do a bit better than that, hence our projection of at least $70 million. The film is obviously more beloved than The Phantom Menace, though its 194-minute run-time limits its number of showings per day.

If Titanic 3D winds up struggling to surpass The Phantom Menace's 3-D ratio of 6.5 percent, then maybe the 3-D reissue trend is better suited to family films like The Lion King. But at this point, it looks like it should be smooth sailing for Titanic 3D, barring any unexpected icebergs.

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