The $200-Million Lesson of 'Titanic'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The man whose studio co-financed the most expensive movie in Hollywood history--the $200-million disaster epic "Titanic"--recalls what it was like during those dark days when the film was still in production and the daily budgets reached his desk.

"During the worst of the times," Peter Chernin recalled, "I remembered saying, 'If we can just break even. . . .' "

Now, some industry insiders say "Titanic," which Tuesday added a record-tying 14 Academy Award nominations to its $337-million box office to date, has raised the bar so high on film budgets that even movies costing $100 million may seem like a bargain.

For Chernin, the president and chief operating officer of News Corp., parent firm of 20th Century Fox, the fact that "Titanic" has become one of the biggest-grossing movies of all time confirms the gut instinct he had when director James Cameron walked into his office three years ago carrying an armload of books about the ill-fated British ocean liner. Cameron had just signed a five-year deal at Fox and was anxious to discuss his next project with the studio executive.

As the men pored over the books, flipping through illustrations of the doomed ocean liner that included undersea photos of the actual wreckage, Cameron enthusiastically pitched his movie.

"Basically, he had the story in his mind at that point," Chernin recalled. "He wanted to do 'Romeo and Juliet.' He wanted to do a personal story against the background of the sinking of a ship."

Did Cameron mention a price tag? "When Jim walks in the room," Chernin said with a laugh, "you know it's not going to be cheap--but he didn't have a dollar figure."

Tuesday's Oscar nominations, Chernin said, were especially gratifying given the turbulent history of the project.

"The budget news was so phenomenally bad on a daily basis. We all went through a tough eight or nine months. There had just never been a movie this expensive in history. . . . You wonder, 'What happens if it fails?' And you start adding up your bank accounts and ask, 'Can my kids go to college?' "

So, he said, "It's incredibly gratifying to get this validation for a movie we're so excited about and believe so much in."

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The film that resulted from that meeting between Chernin and Cameron has struck a resounding chord among moviegoers, but what ramifications does it hold for the film industry?

"People are now going to come in and say, 'My picture only cost $100 million,' " said one high-level studio executive. "If 'Titanic' had failed, it would have been the end of those movies."

Even Chernin said Hollywood has not seen the last film with a $200-million price tag.

"Certainly we hear of no plans to make a $200-million movie," he said, "but there is no question a $200-million film will be made."

Cameron argued that "Titanic" has not raised the bar for production budgets.

"I think it's a complete misinterpretation to say that this film now opens the floodgates for more expensive movies," Cameron said Tuesday. "The validation for making expensive movies has always been that they tend to be the highest-grossing films."

If there are lessons to be learned from "Titanic," the director said, it is not that films will now cost more, but "the media doesn't get to hang a movie with a rush to judgment" before it comes out.

"But more importantly," Cameron added, "if you wait and value your film and investment and treat it with respect and don't rush it into theaters just to make a [release] date, you may win all the marbles."

To be sure, Fox and Paramount Pictures, which jointly produced the film, stand to make a fortune on the movie. With worldwide box office expected to climb to nearly $1 billion, each studio stands to rake in profits of $100 million.

For Cameron, a director with a reputation for being arrogant and driven, the film has proven that his talent is not confined to action-genre films like "Terminator 2."

But many say that it would be crazy for studios to try to replicate the success of "Titanic" by simply spending lavish sums of money on films.

Rob Friedman, who oversaw Paramount's marketing campaign for "Titanic," said the only lesson to be learned from the film is that "lightning in a bottle can occur," but it's not something that any studio can plan.

"I don't believe anybody believes this now lets the pressure off on keeping budget prices down," he said.

One producer said it will not be easier for studios to greenlight mega-budget movies. "Why would it be easier? All people did for a year in this town was sweat 'Titanic.' I think 'Titanic's' cost will make people look more carefully at the cost of a movie."

Entertainment attorney Tom Hanson also doubted that "Titanic" is going to encourage studios to gamble that much money on a film.

"I don't think anyone has looked at 'Titanic' and decided that it makes sense to make movies of that size," Hanson said. "I think everybody was terrified of this movie. In retrospect, it was a great idea, but certainly leading up to the opening, there was a tremendous amount of trepidation and fear."

Jim Wiatt, president of International Creative Management, calls "Titanic" an "aberrational success" that will not change the way Hollywood does business. Wiatt said all studios need big event films to fill their summer and Christmas holiday periods, but they also need movies of varying budgets if they are to succeed.

Mace Neufeld, who has produced such big-budget action films as "Clear and Present Danger" and "Patriot Games," said that one result of soaring budgets is that studios are now entering co-financing deals to lessen the risks.

"Everybody keeps raising their eyebrows, but nobody is lowering the budgets," Neufeld said.

Neufeld said one positive result of "Titanic's" success could be a return to big-studio period movies.

"Studios have been reluctant to do period pieces over the years after the failure of the western and the big costume drama," Neufeld said. "Yet here we have a picture that has this great period detail in it, which is one of the reasons it was so expensive, and suddenly it is one of the highest-grossing films of all time."

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Producer Frank Price said Hollywood has always needed movies with spectacle to draw in an audience. That's as true today, he said, as it was in 1915 when D.W. Griffith released "Birth of a Nation."

But Price said a movie depends on many elements if it is to succeed, including a good script and selecting the right actors.

"If you make a love story and discover there is no chemistry between the leading man and leading woman, you're dead," he said. "That happened with Julia Roberts and Nick Nolte [in "I Love Trouble"]."

Chernin himself noted that some people have compared "Titanic" to "Gone With the Wind" in this respect: "It was a love story set against a spectacle."

After Cameron made repeated deep-sea dives to the resting place of the Titanic, the director invited Chernin up to his house to view the raw footage. Chernin said the undersea images of the ship were haunting and he particularly recalled looking at the woodwork that came into view as the camera silently proceeded down the ship's hallway. Chernin said it made him realize that this was more than just another movie.

"I don't think the lesson of this is that we should be making $200-million movies," Chernin said. "I think we should be making great movies."

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