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Titanic & the greatest film run ever
PLUS: World Cup, Mariah Carey and White Lotus.
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Today, we’re talking about the 1997 film Titanic (and how it went on the greatest box office run ever).
Also this week:
Why France produces the most World Cup players
Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas”
And lots of memes (including White Lotus)
HOUSEKEEPING: Hey, I’ll be taking next week off (Dec. 24). and — I just got wrecked by a flu — so I’ll probably take the last Saturday (Dec. 31) of the year off too. Back to regular programming on Saturday, January 7th. Have a great holiday season and thank you for reading!
Avatar 2 is out this weekend.
The James Cameron film took 12 years to make and the legendary director says it will have become one of the 3 or 4 highest-grossing movies ever just to break even (the original Avatar tops the list).
Here is the current top-grossing worldwide list (not adjusted for inflation):
$2.92B = Avatar (2009)
$2.80B = Avengers: End Game (2019)
$2.20B = Titanic (1997)
$2.07B = Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015)
$2.05B = Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Of these films, there is a clear outlier: Titanic, the iconic Cameron disaster drama starring a 21-year old Leonardo DiCaprio and 22-year old Kate Winslet.
It’s not sci-fi. It’s not a super-hero film. It’s not a sequel. And it definitely didn’t make money like a traditional blockbuster. In its opening week, Titanic pulled in only $53m. This figure is dwarfed by the first-week hauls of the other top 5 films: Avatar ($137m), End Game ($474m), The Force Awakens ($391m), Infinity Wars ($338m).
So how did Titanic pull in $2.2B overall? The film — which went on to win 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture — was the #1 film in America for an incredible 15 straight weeks.
The record still stands and is unlikely to ever be topped.
Here’s a breakdown of how a film many expected to fail reached the highest Hollywood heights:
A difficult pitch
Rewind to the mid-1990s. James Cameron is in his early 40s.
A former truck driver, Cameron learnt film by driving down to the University of Southern California every weekend and photocopying technical film-making manuals (he told Howard Stern that he got an entire film school education for the $120 worth of Xerox).
The Canadian director then gets hands-on experience working on campy sci-fi films before reeling off string of legendary sci-fi and action movies: Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986), The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2 (1991) and True Lies (1994).
Even with this pedigree, Cameron knew that the next project he wanted to do — a fictional take on the doomed Titanic ship — is a huge ask. In a 1997 interview with Charlie Rose, the Canadian director laid out the pitch he made to Peter Chernin at Fox:
“Ok guys, here’s the picture. It takes place in 1912. It’s a period drama. Can’t be any stars because the characters are too young. And it’ll probably cost north of a $100m. And everyone dies in the end and there’s no sequel possibility. [It’s a 3-hour movie]…Theme park attractions are out, because if you go on [the attraction] you don’t come out. It’s a tougher sell for them to do a film at this budget without the comfort of [those ancillary revenue streams].”
This is objectively a bad business pitch. The long run-time is bad for theatres because there are fewer showings a day. No established stars makes it hard for marketing. And the lack of additional revenue streams (theme parks, merch, sequels) make it super risky for investors.
Leo was on the come-up after Rome & Juliet but a fraction of the fame we know now. Winslet’s nickname was “Corset Kate” for all the 17th and 18th-century period dramas she did (not exactly the stuff of blockbusters).
Ultimately, Cameron convinced the studio to take the next step by writing a really good script. Then Fox partnered with Paramount to lighten the investment, which would top $200m. Cameron also gave up his $8m directing fee and some gross profit points to make the film happen. The official salary was still $1.5m for the script and he pulled in ~$100m from profit share. It should be noted that Cameron is obsessed with the underwater world — the new Avatar is literally called The Way of the Water — and he would have spent millions personally to visit the Titanic crash site but got to use a film budget for it.
Even with all the sacrifices, few had faith that Titanic would succeed. Cameron’s team rebuilt much of the ship for filming in Mexico, and the film’s disaster theme led to numerous injuries and all-around difficult work conditions (side note: Cameron almost punted on Leo because the young actor had a nonchalant attitude, but as soon as he delivered a line…he was a no brainer).
Many critics compared Cameron’s effort to another nautically-themed theatrical flop: Kevin Costner’s Waterworld was released in 1995 and the film — on a record-breaking budget of $175m — barely broke even (however, the Waterworld IP has crushed it for Universal Studios theme parks…but, remember, Titanic didn’t even have that option, unless you think going on a Titanic ride is a good idea).
A fortuitous release
So, how did Titanic crush it?
It actually got very lucky with its release schedule. Titanic was originally slated for July 1997, right in the heart of the summer blockbuster season.
For the summer release, the studios wanted Cameron to trim the film’s length. Cameron wasn’t cool with that and also needed more time to get the special effects just right.
As a result, Titanic was pushed to end December. The schedule change turned out to be a huge boost.
From its debut on December 19th 1997 through to early April 1998, Titanic was insanely consistent. The film didn’t hit Marvel-sized home runs but, rather, kept hitting singles.
It’s common knowledge that the “opening weekend” is crucial for any film. In the same vein, insiders carefully track “second week box office”. Historically, a blockbuster might see a 30-40% drop between week 1 and week 2 (the drop is larger nowadays — 50%+ — because a bad film will get skewered on the internet and people have a million other options if that’s the case). Week 3 and on falls off even sharper.
But not for Titanic and one big reason why it kept topping box office in the US: a lack of competition.
Despite its meh opening week, Titanic roared back. Over the 15-week run, only two films were within $1m of Titanic’s domestic weekly take:
Week 12 (US Marshals, which was the sequel to The Fugitive)
Week 13 (The Man in the Iron Mask, which somewhat ironically also starred Leonardo DiCaprio).
Titanic was eventually knocked off by the really really bad sci-fi flick Lost in Space.
Comparatively, a July 1997 release would have put Titanic in competition with some banger action and sci-fi flicks: Men in Black, Air Force One, Face/Off and Con Air.
Historically, a winter release is a staple for film’s to rip off many consecutive weeks at the top: 5 of the top 6 such films were released in November or December, including Beverly Hills Cops, Tootsie, Home Alone and Good Morning Vietnam.
But weak competition can’t explain Titanic’s entire run (and, honestly, I would have put my money on Adam Sandler’s The Wedding Singer all of those weeks).
What was the secret sauce?
Something for everyone
While the original Titanic pitch looked iffy from a business standpoint, the finished product was incredibly well-crafted for a big audience.
In Hollywood, there is a concept known as a “four-quadrant blockbuster”, which describes a film that appeals to every group in this 2x2 matrix (there is a 99.9% chance someone from McKinsey made the chart).
“But to reduce the film to a teen-girl craze is to ignore the Venn diagram of potential ticket-buyers Cameron courted. Titanic roped in blockbuster enthusiasts, drawn by the scale of the production and the promise of eye-popping special effects. It lured the kind of action junkies Cameron used to exclusively cater to, the fans of rollicking spectacles like Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day. History buffs, classic-movie fans, and romantics of all ages went in droves, joined by those intrigued by the rave reviews and Oscar attention. And of course there was the central morbidity of its true story—the appeal to those who just wanted to see a boatload of characters go to watery graves.”
Think about it:
Under 25-females (Leo, chick flick)
Over 25-females (romance, historical fiction, Billy Zane)
Under-25 males (special FX, disaster)
Over-25 males (historical fiction, disaster, probably Billy Zane)
Here’s a wild stat: 7% of US female teens saw it multiple times in the first 5 weeks in what was known as Leo-Mania.
Titanic’s steady run was also the result of two notable tailwinds:
Awards Season: Back in the 1990s — when the Oscar’s still mattered — the studios put huge marketing muscle into winning film awards. On January 18, 1998, Titanic won best Drama film at the Golden Globes. The Oscar’s were 10 weeks later and Titanic rode the hype the entire time (the film’s 15-week streak ended in the first weekend after the Academy Awards on March 23rd, 1998.
Celine Dion: Look, I’m biased. Celine is Canadian (so is Cameron). I’m Canadian. And I think we can all agree that her mega-single “My Heart Will Go On” is probably the greatest love ballad ever. It’s the 11th highest-selling single of all time (18m sold) and I’m listening to it right now. RIGHT NOW! There has never been a more symbiotic song and film than Celine’s hit and Titanic. The song dominated airwaves in 1998 and served as a constant advertisement for the film. I would also argue that Celine’s song was perfect for winter time and very well would have underperformed during a summer 1997 release (as much as I love “My Hear Will Go On”, it’s not quite a summer banger like Biggie’s “Mo Money, Mo Problems”).
Titanic dominated cultural mindshare in one of the last true pre-internet periods. If you weren’t watching Titanic in January or February 1998, what the hell were you doing?
In the US, it’s estimated that Titanic sold 136m tickets. Of the 11 films that have sold 100m+ tickets in the US, the majority (9 of 11) were before 1982. It was just much easier to be culturally dominant back in the day. Unsurprisingly, the largest inflation-adjusted box office ever is 1939’s Gone With The Wind at $3.44B (what else you doing back then?).
Further, that’s just in the US. The film’s special FX, disaster theme and probably Billy Zane, led to big international success: 70% of Titanic’s $2.2B haul is abroad.
Titanic was simply inescapable.
On March 23rd, 1998, Titanic swept the Oscar’s with 11 awards including Best Picture and Best Director (only 1959's Ben-Hur and 2003's The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King have won as many awards).
In the run-up to the film’s release, Cameron wasn’t particularly aggrieved by the Waterworld comparison. Rather, he hated when Titanic was compared to “just a disaster movie” like to volcano films released in 1997: Dante’s Peak and Volcano (the most literal of names).
For Cameron, Titanic really was a love movie. We fall in love with Jack (Leo) and Rose (Kate) as they fall in love with each other. And it’s through this very personal lens that we are able to feel the most famous maritime accident ever (one that claimed 1,500 lives).
Despite significant doubts and a slow start, Titanic ripped off the greatest box office run in film history. Upon accepting the the Best Director award, Cameron threw his hands in the air and uttered one of the film’s most famous line: “I’m the King of the World.”
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Links and memes
Why France produces the most World Cup players: France plays Argentina tomorrow in the 2022 Qatar World Cup Final.
Here’s a pre-game stat: in this World Cup, there are 137 players playing for a country other than the one they were born. France sent 38 of these players (more than Spain, Brazil, England, Germany and Argentina combined).
FIFA eligibility rules allow players to play for other countries based on “clear connections” (eg. citizenship and parental lineage). Many of the French players on other national teams are playing for former French colonies in Africa: Tunisia (10), Senegal (9), Cameroon (8), Ghana (4), Morocco (3), Spain (1), Germany (1), Portugal (1), Qatar (1).
This is the 5th straight World Cup where France has had more combined players (French national team + other national teams) than any other country.
How did France become such a global football powerhouse? Per Vox, the story dates back to French policies set in the decades after WWII. France needed to rebuild but was short on manpower. So, it brought in millions of workers from Eastern Europe and its African colonies (more migrants went to France than any other European country in the period).
In the 1960s, even more immigrants arrived (including from the Arab Word and the Caribbean). In the same period, France failed to qualify for a number of World Cup tournaments. So, the country launched the French Football Academy to better train and scout talent (it became among the world's best).
Many immigrants (or children of immigrants) have gone through the French football program. When France won the 1998 World Cup, it was lead by Zinedine Zidane (Algerian parents) and Patrick Vieira (born in Senegal).
Today, the French roster doesn't have enough slots for all the players, so they join other national teams. Meanwhile, France's brightest star is Kylian Mbappé — during the country’s 2018 World Cup winning run and again this year — has parents from Cameroon (dad) and Algeria (mom). In fact, more than half of France’s pre-World Cup roster (25 players) had strong links to Africa.
The French team's African make-up has become a social flashpoint with common criticism that the immigrants players are “French when we win” but “immigrants when we lose”.
As for this year’s game, who do I want to win? Messi. He’s the GOAT and would be very fulfilling to see him get the W (Also, check out this ESPN article that says Messi is the greatest male athlete ever...in any sport).
Mariah Carey's passive income machine: In an annual tradition, Mariah’s “All I Want For Christmas is You” hit #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. In 1994, it took Mariah only 15 minutes to write the song. In a 2017 report, The Economist estimated that its earned her $60m in royalties (that’s an average of $2.6m a year). If we include the 5 years since, Mariah has milked over $70m from just this one song…it’s in the hall-of-fame of passive income.
On a semi-related note, Mariah’s Christmas classic is the 12th most-sold single ever (16m)…right behind Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” (18m).
…and here some good tweets
I don’t know how many of my readers watch HBO’s White Lotus. But the show — which has two short seasons (6 episodes, 7 episodes) — is probably my favorite of this year. For the uninitiated, White Lotus is a fictional hotel chain where we meet a bunch of tourists and follow along vacation stories. The mood is dark comedy and hits on real topics (money, sex, status) very well. Season 1 was set in Hawaii and Season 2 was set in Italy. Season 3 is TBD but…
FTX update: Sam-Bankman Fried was arrested by Bahamas authorities last week. The US Attorney’s Office hit him with a the kitchen sink: “[SBF] could face up to 115 years in prison if convicted on all eight counts against him in a federal indictment….the charges against him including wire fraud, wire fraud conspiracy, and conspiracy to commit money laundering.” He’s currently in a Bahamas prison — one of the world’s worst — awaiting extradition.
Separately, the FTX’s bankruptcy CEO John Jay Ray did a congressional hearing on the crypto exchange’s downfall. Ray was previously the restructuring CEO at Enron and said FTX is worse than Enron. The most viral moment from the hearing: when Ray said that FTX — once a $32B firm — was using Quickbooks (Intuit’s small business accounting software) to run its operation: “They used Quickbooks! A multibillion dollar company using Quickbooks! Nothing against Quickbooks. A very nice tool, but not for a billion dollar company."