A Chip Off the Old Iceberg

Twenty years ago, Titanic broke box office records. So why didn't more movies rip off its winning formula?

Jack and Rose forever: James Cameron's Titanic rakes in the dough every time it returns to the big screen.
Jack and Rose forever: James Cameron's Titanic rakes in the dough every time it returns to the big screen.

December 2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the most lucrative and deliriously popular movie ever made: James Cameron's Titanic. The epic romantic disaster drama debuted in U.S. cinemas on Dec. 19, 1997, and played until October 1998, 41 weeks later.

Titanic wasn't just a huge hit; it was an inescapable phenomenon. Showings were sold-out well into early 1998, and the film stayed at the top of the box office charts for 15 consecutive weeks (still a record). It earned $1.8 billion worldwide, and remained the biggest box office hit ever until it was supplanted by Cameron's own Avatar in 2010.

The film was a critical success, too. It took home 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, tying with Ben-Hur for the most Academy Awards won by a single film. In 2012, to commemorate the centenary of the sinking of the ship, the film was re-released in 3D and earned another $300 million, pushing its total box office take beyond $2 billion. Now, in honor of this landmark anniversary, Titanic will be back in theaters for one week only in a new remastered edition. Expect sellouts again.

The film was "supposed" to be a huge flop, destined to be a legendary example of big-budget folly, Cameron's out-of-control creative arrogance destined to doom it. But we all know what happens when a movie is a hit, especially if it's an unexpected one, as Titanic was: Knockoffs, lots of 'em, to the point where we get sick of 'em, even if some of the knockoffs are pretty good.

It's been a feature of the blockbuster era since Star Wars, which spawned a lot of crap — including Italian schlock Starcrash and Battle Beyond the Stars, directed by an uncredited Roger Corman — and some not-at-all-bad flicks like The Black Hole and The Last Starfighter. We can also thank George Lucas for Battlestar Galactica. Some movies are so popular and so influential that they ignite what feels like entire subgenres.

So it's very mysterious, indeed, that we were never inundated with Titanic knockoffs. We should be absolutely sick to death of all the cash-ins and imitators. We who complain about the poor quality of much of the industry's output are constantly reminded that Hollywood is a business. That's the excuse we hear, particularly when we complain about the lack of movies about women: They don't make money (although clearly, they do).

But the evidence of Titanic and Hollywood's supposed business practices is clear. We should have been swamped with movies that tried to recapture its money-making magic. And we weren't. Adventure romance amidst disaster and/or big historical events. Messed-up woman who learns how to really live via a manic pixie dream boy (that's what Jack Dawson is, after all). There are so many possibilities here. And Hollywood completely ignored them.

Is it because the female audience that spent so much time and money on the film was actively derided in the press? The phenomenon of the film received almost hysterical coverage in the media, and we heard tell of girls and women seeing the film a dozen times or more as if that were crazy, rather than indicating an underserved audience eating up a story that finally spoke to them. Did that only add to Hollywood's usual disdain for stories about girls and women?

Of course it's true that if there were Titanic knockoffs, most of them would have completely misunderstood what made the original film so appealing to its female audience. But the fact that the industry didn't even try makes it tough to buy that movies are "just a business." Not when Hollywood left so much money on the table simply to avoid telling more stories like Titanic. ♦