When 'Titanic' Was Expected to Be a Huge Flop

'Titanic' was expected to drown at the box office.
'Titanic' was expected to drown at the box office. / Getty Images/GettyImages

All at once they fell, these cast and crew members on the set of director James Cameron’s attempt to recreate the mass casualty event on the RMS Titanic.

The cause was not the tipping ship (built at 90-percent scale) or layoffs, but lobster chowder: Someone had spiked the catered meal of the production with the hallucinogen PCP.

Roughly 50 people were rushed to the hospital while filming in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, in August 1996. Actor Bill Paxton was among those sickened—he watched as others began having emotional outbursts, breathing into a paper bag to quell his anxiety.

“You see some people are freaking out, some people are conga dancing, some people are euphoric,” Paxton later said of the incident. The actor soon found himself headed to the hospital along with dozens of other crewmembers. But instead of waiting in the long line to be seen by a doctor, Paxton decided to head back to the set and treat his symptoms with a case of beer. "That seemed to help me," he told Larry King years later.

The chaotic scene was a kind of metaphor for the troubled production itself. Years in the making, Titanic had an enormous budget of $110 million—which had virtually doubled by the end. The project was also besieged by an unhappy cast and crew that spoke out publicly about the rigorous shoot and their domineering director. The logistics of simulating the famous maritime disaster were so challenging that Hollywood began to question how it could ever make a profit, and whether Cameron's career was about to sink along with the ship.

Out to Sea

A publicity still from 'Titanic' (1997) is pictured
The 'Titanic' sinks in 'Titanic.' / Getty Images/GettyImages

The concept of the box office dud has always invited a morbid curiosity, probably because it demonstrates the fragility of the movie business. A studio can spend tens or hundreds of millions of dollars on a film, only to have an audience thumb its collective noses at it. Waterworld (1995), featuring Kevin Costner as a gill-equipped hero in an aquatic dystopia, was one of them; so was Cutthroat Island, a tedious pirate adventure that was released the same year. Undisputed box office king Arnold Schwarzenegger got his turn with 1993’s Last Action Hero, while 1980’s Heaven’s Gate was such a failure that it forced studio United Artists into bankruptcy and director Michael Cimino into director’s jail. Titanic seemed like a potential contender to join the lineup.

The subject of the Titanic had already proven to be a risky concept to film: Raise the Titanic, based on a novel about an attempt to surface the wreck, made just $7 million against a $40 million budget in 1980. This new take on the story would require a much bigger investment to get the sets and special effects just right—but it still wasn't clear whether audiences would show up.

To spread the risk around, studios Fox and Paramount agreed to co-fund the estimated $110 million budget. And unlike recent flops, this film had James Cameron at the helm. The director had made hit after hit, beginning with 1984’s The Terminator and its massive 1991 sequel, 1986’s Aliens, and 1994’s True Lies. Only The Abyss (1990) had failed to perform to expectations. That The Abyss happened to be set in and around water is probably something studio executives didn’t want to think about.

Cameron set about depicting the sinking of the ship as seen through the eyes of lovers Rose (Kate Winslet) and Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). Since neither actor was a proven box office attraction back in 1997, the real selling point was seeing how much of a spectacle $110 million could buy.

The plan was to shoot for six months in Nova Scotia, Los Angeles, the UK, and Rosarito Beach, Mexico, where a near-scale replica of the ship was built. As the production went on, the industry trade papers were kept abreast of an increasingly stressful environment. These issues were amplified by the fact that there were up to 1000 extras and 800 crew members on the job at any given time, many of whom were working in multi-million-dollar water tank sets to simulate the icy Atlantic Ocean. Winslet said she got hypothermia and “nearly drowned” twice while filming. Cameron—an infamous perfectionist—took much of the blame in the press.

“If anything was the slightest bit wrong, he would lose it,” Winslet said of working with Cameron. “It was hard to concentrate when he was losing it, shouting and screaming. Logistically, it was a very tough film, for him as much as anyone. By the end, I was existing on four hours sleep a day, but Jim was existing on three.”

Filming was expected to last six months but stretched to eight. The budget also doubled from the reported $110 million, making it even costlier than Waterworld’s $200 million price tag. This earned Titanic the dubious honor of being the most expensive movie ever made at the time. Cameron tried to challenge the unflattering narrative in the media, writing to the Los Angeles Times that quotes from irate crew members had been taken out of context and that he had waived most of his salary when the budget began to climb.

“My manner on the set is intense, and I never give up until I know the scene is the best it can be,” the director wrote. “I ask people to rise to my level of commitment every single day.”

Cameron’s commitment to getting it right soon involved pushing the film back. Originally scheduled for a July 1997 release, it was moved to the end of the year because of postproduction issues—further fueling the idea that the movie was in deep trouble.

Cameron's Ship Comes In

Because theater owners typically get about half of a movie’s ticket price—though that can and does change depending on the predicted success of a major movie—it was estimated that Titanic needed to make $400 million dollars just to break even. That seemed like a major hurdle to clear with no international stars, no franchise familiarity, and an ending that the audience already knew was coming. To make things worse, a big-budget Broadway show about the Titanic premiered earlier in 1997 to middling reviews and a host of technical issues that once prompted the show's director to apologize to audiences before a preview showing. The success of Cameron's film was far from assured.

The first sign of encouragement may have come in summer 1997, when an early cut was shown to a test audience at Minnesota’s Mall of America. Viewers were quoted as saying it was a “jaw-dropper” and “fantastic.”

Then in November, the studios opted to premiere the film in Japan. There, at least, DiCaprio was perceived as a star, thanks to 1996's Romeo + Juliet becoming a cult hit in the country. Throngs of devotees swarmed the Tokyo theater hoping to catch a glimpse of the actor, and when the movie began, they chanted “Leo!” and broke out into applause.

“That’s one country down, the world to go,” Entertainment Weekly wrote.

When Cameron’s Titanic finally docked in the U.S. on December 19, 1997, it grossed a strong $28.6 million in its opening weekend—outpacing the new James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies. And the earnings were more impressive than they first appeared. With a running time of over three hours, Titanic missed out on an extra evening screening; it could have made another $12 million if it was shorter. It soon became clear the movie wasn’t going to have a problem turning a profit.

Unlike modern blockbusters that make huge money opening weekend and then drop by more than 50 percent the next, Titanic actually made more ($35.4 million) in its second weekend and remained in first place for an astonishing 17 weeks, well into March 1998. That was long enough for audiences to stream out of theaters and then watch as it snapped up 11 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for the cantankerous Cameron. (More than 87 million people caught that telecast, making it the most-viewed Academy Awards ceremony ever.)

Fans held Titanic parties, got haircuts like DiCaprio’s, and went to see the film over and over again. In marrying an intimate love story with spectacle, Cameron had tapped into something, though it had taken nearly a quarter of a billion dollars to achieve it.

When Titanic finally rolled out of theaters, it had made $1.8 billion (not including re-releases, which had it top $2 billion), making it the most successful movie of all time. It now sits at number three, behind Avengers: Endgame (2019) and Cameron’s own Avatar (2009).

In the end, Cameron never lost sight of the movie's real appeal: not a replica ship, but an ill-fated love story between DiCaprio and Winslet's characters. It was the film's most impressive (and cheapest) special effect.