James Cameron's "Titanic"--already the most expensive film ever made with production costs at $200 million and mounting--will face another obstacle to profitability: getting people to sit still for three hours.
The long running time of the seaborne-disaster picture matches that of "Doctor Zhivago," the 1965 David Lean epic starring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie--a film Cameron has invoked numerous times as an inspiration during the making of "Titanic."
Ending weeks of speculation, co-distributors Paramount Pictures and 20th Century Fox announced Tuesday that Cameron's film would be released Dec. 19. It was originally slated for July 2.
Cameron said that he pitched the story as a three-hour movie more than two years ago to Peter Chernin, president and chief operating officer of News Corp. (parent company of 20th Century Fox).
"I told him, 'If you don't want a three-hour movie, don't do it,' " Cameron said Tuesday, taking a break from a rigorous post-production schedule that will allow the film to be finished by September. "It's a big canvas, it's a big story. I can't tell it in less time than this."
Hollywood conventional wisdom holds that the longer a film runs, the tougher it can be to sell.
"We have done some studies on anything over 2 1/2 hours, and except for an unusual picture, business goes down," said Phil Garfinkle, senior vice president of Entertainment Data Inc., a box-office tracking firm.
Recent box-office disappointments that ran three hours or more include "Nixon" (3 hours and 10 minutes, $13.7 million), "Hamlet" (4 hours and 2 minutes, $4.5 million) and "Wyatt Earp" (3 hours and 9 minutes, $25 million).
Though acknowledging that a three-hour length is an obstacle, Garfinkle said there are some notable exceptions at the domestic box office. "Dances With Wolves" (1990) lasted three hours and grossed $184 million. "Braveheart" (1995) was 2 minutes short of 3 hours and took in $75.6 million. "Schindler's List" (1993) ran 3 hours and 15 minutes and grossed $96 million.
"If the picture's there, it will still do business," Garfinkle said. "But, in general, the chances are less, the longer the film is."
While longer films get fewer showings per day, he pointed out that multiple-screen cinemas can offset those limitations.
"One of the problems when 'Braveheart' came out was you had three showings a day, instead of four or five," Garfinkle said. "But now with today's multiplexes and multiple screens for a picture, you can somewhat negate that because you're going to have more seats available."
Cameron said that while he had enjoyed great success with summer openings on films such as "Terminator 2," "True Lies" and "Aliens," in the end he felt "Titanic"--starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet--fit better thematically in December.
"The argument for opening in the summer was that Leo's hot right now with teenagers, so summer is obviously a better playtime for them," Cameron said. "But, on the other hand, it's a grown-up movie with grown-up themes and it is a dramatic film and that type of film has traditionally done better in late fall."
Also, Cameron added, if he couldn't open on Fourth of July weekend--as it was becoming increasingly apparent he couldn't with a host of post-production delays--it was better to open in December than August, when more than half of the summer box-office period would be over.
Six other movies are set to open on Dec. 19, including the new James Bond movie "Tomorrow Never Dies"; "Home Alone 3"; "The Mask of Zorro," starring Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins; "For Richer or Poorer," starring Tim Allen and Kirstie Alley; "The Mighty," starring Sharon Stone and Gillian Anderson; and a sequel to Wes Craven's "Scream." "Amistad," Steven Spielberg's epic tale about a slave ship mutiny starring Morgan Freeman and Anthony Hopkins, will go into wider release on that date after opening in limited release on Dec. 12.