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‘Titanic’ Refuses to Sink, Passes ‘Star Wars’ as Top Moneymaker

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s loyalists like Selena Phanara who helped the blockbuster maritime disaster epic “Titanic” steam its way past George Lucas’ “Star Wars” this weekend to become the highest-grossing film of all time.

Six times, the Burbank artist and teacher has seen the story of two star-crossed young lovers aboard the doomed ocean liner--which on Saturday reached $471.5 million in box office sales across North America, compared with $461 million earned by “Star Wars.”

These are heady days for director James Cameron’s “Titanic,” which, with its $200-million price tag, is the most expensive movie ever made. Last week, the three-hour film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet became the first movie to pass $1 billion in worldwide theatrical box office sales. The film has also been nominated for 14 Academy Awards.

Heading the list of top-grossing films for 12 straight weeks since its release Dec. 19, “Titanic” officially surpassed “Star Wars” on Saturday. If the trend continues this week, the film would tie “Tootsie” and several others for the most weeks atop the list.

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So what would it take to break the movie’s string of first-place weekly finishes?

Another Leonardo DiCaprio movie, of course.

On this most recent weekend, according to preliminary figures from Exhibitor Relations Co., “Titanic” shared first place with the debut of “The Man in the Iron Mask,” another film starring DiCaprio.

Both films took in an estimated $17.5 million. Final figures were to be released today.

“We knew this could possibly happen, to have a weekend where it’s DiCaprio versus DiCaprio,” said John Krier, who heads the box office tracking firm. “But we’ll see what happens. ‘Titanic’ has been routinely strong on Sundays, when people aren’t as pressed for time and can make time for a three-hour movie.”

So far, “Titanic” shows little sign of easing its record-setting pace begun in December, when it had moviegoing crowds lining up for hours. The film is being played on 3,116 movie screens nationwide--the most since its release--compared to 3,101 for “Iron Mask.”

“I’ve been watching for the big ‘Titanic’ decline, and so far I don’t really see much of one,” Krier said. “It’s been doing $20 million a weekend at a steady clip, so--even if it declined to $17 million--that’s not much of a drop.”

Unlike countless teenagers nationwide, many of whom have flocked to see “Titanic” time and again to swoon over the youthful-looking DiCaprio, Phanara has another reason for worshiping the film.

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“It’s not the riveting plot, OK?” she said as she waited for a Sunday morning showing at Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. “It’s the whole spectacle of the thing. On repeated viewings, you can enjoy the little flourishes, like watching the extras.

“And there’s still enough to the movie to keep me coming back. But I think 10 times will probably be my limit.”

Paul Person, an assistant manager at Mann’s Chinese, said the demand to see “Titanic” has eased a bit after the film sold out every performance for its first 10 weeks.

“It’s been pure madness,” he said. “They’re not all sold out. But they’re full.”

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But Hollywood moves on. On Friday, Mann’s Chinese moved “Titanic” from its 1,500-seat main theater into a smaller 750-seat one to make way for “U.S. Marshals.”

And on Sunday, the theater suddenly canceled “Titanic’s” scheduled first showing of the day due to a premiere party for the 20th-anniversary re-release of the film “Grease.”

A handful of “Titanic” believers, and a few who had not seen the film, stood in disbelief outside the theater box office at the news of the cancellation.

“They can’t do this,” said a disappointed Phanara, who promised to return for a later showing. “This is ‘Titanic.’ This isn’t some film you can push around like this.”

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* DOUBLE TROUBLE: Leonardo DiCaprio’s appeal is apparent as “Titanic” and newly released “The Man in the Iron Mask” tie for the No. 1 spot at the box office. F2


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