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COMPANY TOWN | THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER

Full Speed Ahead

'Titanic' Steaming Into Uncharted Financial Waters

January 27, 1998|CLAUDIA ELLER

Before the Dec. 19 release of "Titanic," many industry pundits predicted that Jim Cameron's $200-million-plus production would sink the job of at least one senior executive at 20th Century Fox--movie chairman Bill Mechanic--as the film went down in a sea of red ink.

Today, those same individuals are forecasting that "Titanic" will be the most successful motion picture of all time, surpassing the $914-million worldwide theatrical gross of Steven Spielberg's 1993 hit, "Jurassic Park," and generating profits in excess of $400 million, to be divvied up among Fox, Paramount Pictures and Cameron.

When it hit $274.6 million in domestic box office over the weekend, "Titanic" knocked Spielberg's "Jaws" from 10th place on the list of highest-grossing films in the U.S.

Not only does Mechanic's job appear to be secure, but shares in Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., Fox's parent, have surged 17% since Christmas, at least partly based on analysts' expectations that "Titanic" is going to be uniquely successful and could drive profits higher.

Cameron's three-hour, 14-minute retelling of the 1912 maritime disaster has become one of those rare motion pictures--like "E.T.," "Star Wars" and "Independence Day"--that are global cultural phenomena, transcending the Hollywood moniker of a box-office blockbuster or an event movie.

"Titanic" itself has become a global event. Let's face it, you don't want to be the only one in a roomful of people who hasn't yet seen the movie.

"I've never seen a phenomenon like this," remarked Rob Friedman, vice chairman of Paramount's Motion Picture Group, noting that not only are young girls flocking to the movie to gawk at Leonardo DiCaprio (known as "The Leo Factor"), but adults are also going back to see it repeatedly.

In addition to racking up nearly $275 million at the domestic box office in record time, the film has already generated overseas theatrical sales of more than $217 million and has the biggest-selling score soundtrack since SoundScan began electronically tracking album sales in 1991.

Last week, the instrumental soundtrack, released by Sony Classical/Sony Soundtrax--featuring only one pop song by Canadian singer Celine Dion--sold a phenomenal 415,000 copies in the United States alone--more than Garth Brooks, Puffy Combs, LeAnn Rimes and the Spice Girls combined.

Even the Harper/Collins book spawned by the movie, "James Cameron's 'Titanic,' " documenting the behind-the-scenes making of the motion picture, is No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction paperbacks.

While most hit movies open big and gradually drop off, "Titanic" has sustained an unsurpassed level of business. It's the only film ever to gross more than $25 million on six consecutive weekends.

(Five titles, including "Independence Day," "The Lion King," "Twister," "Forrest Gump" and "Jurassic Park" each grossed over $20 million three weekends in a row. And "Home Alone" reigned as the nation's top film for six weekends, but not at "Titanic" levels.)

It also grossed $250 million faster than any other film ever (36 days), beating the previous mark of 37 days by "Jurassic Park." This coming weekend, "Titanic" could become the fastest ever to reach $300 million (in 45 days) ahead of record holder "Jurassic Park" (67 days).

The film's international stamina is just as potent. According to Fox international president Jim Gianopulos, this last weekend alone saw "Titanic" gross a whopping $51.5 million, with business in Italy up 40%. The film's biggest drop-off in any foreign territory was 5%, said Gianopulos, with most markets reporting a 10% to 20% increase.

The film's business is even more impressive considering its three-hours-plus running time generally limits the picture to three screenings a day in a theater, compared with the usual five.

Given its unsurpassed staying power--over this last Super Bowl weekend it grossed $25.2 million domestically and only dropped off 16% from the previous weekend--it's virtually impossible to predict how much money "Titanic" will ultimately yield from all revenue sources, including home video, television and other ancillary sales.

Earlier this month, the broadcast rights to the picture were sold to NBC for $30 million, covering five airings during a five-year window beginning in 2000. There's talk in Hollywood that perhaps Paramount, the studio that made the sale, was too hasty in cutting a deal before the box office played out, since the payment fell short of the $80 million Fox Broadcasting dished out for "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" and the $50 million NBC paid for "Men in Black."

Paramount executives declined to discuss the sale, but an insider argued that the other two TV sales covered more runs over longer periods. In any case, "Titanic" is racking up the bucks faster than any movie before it.

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