Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in a scene from "Titantic 3D." (Paramount Pictures )
In the late 1990s, a peculiar global fever broke out. Boys in Afghanistan began cutting their hair like Leonardo DiCaprio, girls in Japan held parties to weep together while listening to "My Heart Will Go On" and cruise line staffers had to keep peeling adventuresome passengers from the bows of their ships.
The whole world, it seemed, needed a good cry — and found it in the movie "Titanic," James Cameron's extravagant retelling of the luxury ocean liner's 1912 sinking. After its 1997 premiere, "Titanic" sailed on to gross $1.8 billion globally, a record that would not be surpassed at the box office for 12 years — until Cameron's 2009 3-D fantasy "Avatar."
Beginning Tuesday night, "Titanic" will return to theaters, this time in 3-D, in the U.S. and more than 100 other countries. In re-releasing his romantic disaster epic, Cameron is courting a broad audience of nostalgia-driven adults, fans who were too young to see "Titanic" on the big screen the first time around and moviegoers in countries such as China and Russia where theaters were few and far between during the film's initial run.
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"Titanic" foreshadowed many trends in Hollywood — its then-jaw-dropping $208-million production budget and global box office reach have since become standard among studios making fewer and costlier films with an eye toward international audiences. But the period romance also signaled the end of a certain kind of filmmaking, which relied on a scale model of the Titanic that Cameron built in Mexico, instead of the now common computer-generated sets.
"Titanic 3D" will not likely reach the box office heights of the film's initial release — industry analysts expect it to open at $25 million to $30 million in the U.S. But the movie will serve as a strong test case for the business model of 3-D re-releases, in which studios convert their catalog titles for stereoscopic viewing — often for about $10 million — and market them as a new cinema-going experience. The strategy got a boost from the unexpected $94-million domestic box office take of "The Lion King 3D" in September; a release of "The Phantom Menace 3D" earned $43 million in February; and 3-D conversions of the rest of the "Star Wars" films, various animated Disney and Pixar titles, and live action movies such as "Jurassic Park" and "Top Gun" are in the works.
"We knew a film that played worldwide was critically important," Cameron said last week by phone from Tokyo, of whom he had in mind when writing "Titanic," which centers on a privileged 17-year-old girl (Kate Winslet) who falls for an artistic drifter (DiCaprio) against the backdrop of history's grandest nautical tragedy. Its themes of young love, class difference and courage in the face of disaster — not to mention the meticulously re-created spectacle of the ship's sinking — appealed to a wide audience.
PHOTOS: 'Titanic 3D' premiere
"I guess I write in a way that critics who don't like me consider cliché, but audiences who do like me consider archetypes that they can invest in," added Cameron, who was in Tokyo for the Japanese premiere of "Titanic 3D." "I like relatively simple messages that are served up in lavish visuals. I don't want to be obscure about what I'm trying to say. Filmmaking is an instinctive process. You try to make a good movie and if it plays, it plays."
Fifteen years ago, "Titanic" played ... and played ... and played. In the U.S., the movie held the No. 1 spot at the box office for 15 consecutive weeks — a record that still stands — and earned 11 Academy Awards.
"This movie defines pre-awareness," said Jim Gianopulos, co-chairman and chief executive of Fox Filmed Entertainment, which is releasing "Titanic 3D" internationally. "There isn't anyone who isn't aware of 'Titanic.' But the experience and the newness of the 3-D conversion is what has people excited."
In the winter of 1998, Russians lined up to see "Titanic" on one of 32 available movie screens; "Titanic 3D" will play on 10 times that many screens in Russia.
"I have never cried so much in my life as I did when I first watched 'Titanic' on the big screen," said Anna Pechnikova, a 34-year-old Moscow schoolteacher. "I often listen to the movie's soundtrack on my stereo at home and I'm looking forward to the coming 3-D release, which I am sure will help me to experience new emotions."