Titanic Costs

December 22, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


PAUL SOLMAN: It was sink or swim for two big Hollywood studios this weekend as Fox and Paramount launched a titanic film costing a titanic $200 million. We’re talking, of course, about the “Titanic.” And to begin, here’s some of the spectacle from the film’s trailer.


ACTOR: Iceberg, right ahead!

ACTRESS: The water is freezing and there aren’t enough boats. Half the people on this ship are going to die.

ACTOR: For God’s sake, there’s women and children down here! Get us out so we can have a chance!

PAUL SOLMAN: Now, the economics of Hollywood shipwrecks. With us are Bernard Weinraub, who covers the entertainment business in Los Angeles for the New York Times and David Denby, film critic for New York Magazine. Welcome to you both. Mr. Weinraub, how do you spend $200 million on one movie?

BERNARD WEINRAUB, New York Times: Well, any film that has that kind of huge special effects where you have six, seven, or eight hundred people working on the film, where you have to build–where the director demands a replica of the film–

PAUL SOLMAN: A replica of the–

BERNARD WEINRAUB: –of the “Titanic.”

PAUL SOLMAN: Wait a second. You mean a replica of the actual boat?

BERNARD WEINRAUB: It’s a close to replica of the actual boat. It’s not the actual boat, but an actual boat was more or less built for the film. Everything adds up, and it adds up to $200 million.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, how big a boat? You mean–when you say an actual boat, you mean nearly the size of the “Titanic?” No, it can’t be.

BERNARD WEINRAUB: It wasn’t the size of the “Titanic” but it wasn’t all that far off from it. I’m not sure of the exact dimensions.

DAVID DENBY, New York Magazine: It was 770 feet as against the actual length of 880 feet.

BERNARD WEINRAUB: So it was pretty close.


PAUL SOLMAN: Wait a second. Mr. Denby, explain–so, you mean, this thing was “Titanic,” gigantic?

DAVID DENBY: Yes. I’m not bothered by the cost of the “Titanic” because it turned out very well. What bothers me is that normal films, you know, little romantic comedies shot in the San Fernando Valley winds up costing $40 million and then another $20 million on top of that for promotion. And that causes everyone to get very cautious and makes the film bland. I mean, at least Cameron–you know, there’s always been a sort of expansive tradition of directors like Spielberg, who’s quite disciplined, Cameron, who’s not. But they think big, and they have big visions, and these things cannot be done inexpensively. It’s the people of little visions who are, you know, allowing costs to inflate wildly who I think are destroying movies.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, Mr. Weinraub, you can explain to us how a movie gets to be $40 million, $60 million, $200 million. Most people are not building a huge replica, almost life size of the “Titanic” after all.

BERNARD WEINRAUB: Well, the studios who make–I’m not sure I agree entirely with David, but–

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, just first give us the basics so we understand because most of us don’t spend $40 million to make a movie, you know.

BERNARD WEINRAUB: Once studios get involved in a film, as opposed to a small, independent company, the overhead becomes huge; it was studios just by nature spend a lot of money. And when a studio hires a star to even make a small movie, the star asks five or ten or fifteen million dollars. If the October films are an independent company or even Miramax asks a star to be in a movie, asks Bruce Willis to be in a movie, he’s not going to take his $20 million. On the other hand, if Warner Brothers asked Bruce Willis to be in a movie, he’s going to demand $20 million. So I think once a studio gets involved costs escalate really out of hand.

PAUL SOLMAN: And what about promotion?

BERNARD WEINRAUB: Promotion has been extraordinarily expensive. Promotion is in some ways accelerating at a far faster rate than production–I mean, production of a movie–forget “Titanic” but an average movie goes into 20, 25, 30 million dollars.

DAVID DENBY: Another thing, Paul. By this footnote, what Bernie is saying–if you can’t get Bruce Willis, who gets say 15, then you’re going to ask for a second level or a third level store, so if he senses that you need him. Okay. To see–they used to have everyone on salary–50 years ago–the studios–so they could just assign these people into movies. Now these packages are made up in agents’ offices or producers’ offices, the whole situation is stable, is unstable and fluid, so people ask as much as they can get. So if that second level star who would normally get–I don’t know–aid, realizes that he’s needed for the production to occur–to attract other elements to the production like a certain director, even a certain cinematographer or other actors, he’s going to ask ten, or twelve, or the guy who normally does five or got five for his last picture, if he thinks he’s needed for the package, then he’s going to ask eight. So that top level of, you know, Tom Hanks making twenty or Jim Carey has the effect of pulling everything up.

PAUL SOLMAN: But doesn’t, to an economist, that would suggest that these people are worth it because you could only ask what the market demands, so then Tom Hanks pulls in the viewers and it makes sense, or James Cameron spends the money to make a replica of the “Titanic,” no? I mean, it’s just simple economics, or no, am I missing–

BERNARD WEINRAUB: Well, no, I don’t think so because lately we’ve seen lots of star vehicles failing. We saw, you know, Warner Brothers’ “Fathers Day” with Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, certainly Robin Williams is a major star. That film was a total disaster. You had you know a film like “Midnight in the Garden.” That was directed by Clint Eastwood, and–

PAUL SOLMAN: “Garden of Good and Evil.”

BERNARD WEINRAUB: “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” and that certainly failed. I mean, you have–a star is no guarantee, you know, of success anymore.

PAUL SOLMAN: But you are paying these people because you think they’re going to bring in that kind of money, no?

BERNARD WEINRAUB: You hope, yes.

DAVID DENBY: It’s a real gamble, and often the movies do not make it in the initial theatrical run. Don’t forget. You have to gross like twice or even two and a half times the negative cost to even to begin to break even because the theaters are taking half of the dollar that comes in on every ticket.

PAUL SOLMAN: So if “Titanic” cost $200 million, how much do they have to take in at the box office?

BERNARD WEINRAUB: Well, you know, around the world it would have to be three hundred fifty or more, or close to four hundred million dollars, which would make–which is huge. I mean, “Titanic” would have to have the same box office as a film like “Independence Day,” or “Jurassic Park,” and that’s very, very unusual. I’m not sure “Titanic” will get that.

DAVID DENBY: I think it will get it because I think it’s a very exciting movie. I know, I saw it twice, so if I can sit through it twice, then I think a lot of people will–will want to.


PAUL SOLMAN: Wait a second. I want to ask a question. Why did you sit through it twice? I mean, you get to see them for nothing but–

DAVID DENBY: Well, partly because there were a lot of little details I wanted to check to write my review, but–and I normally don’t see things twice, but really the real reason was I was dying to see it again. I really enjoyed it.

PAUL SOLMAN: Mr. Weinraub, you were going to say something.

BERNARD WEINRAUB: That’s an interesting point because what a lot of people here say is that “Titanic” is the kind of film that people won’t see twice or kids won’t see twice. I mean, kids went back several times to see “Jurassic Park.” They certainly went back several times to see “Men in Black.” And “Titanic,” by the nature of that story, is not that appealing, I don’t think, and to that many kids who’d want to see it twice, and a film has to be seen two or three or four times just to become an event to make the kind of money that’s demanded, the three hundred fifty or four hundred million dollars.

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, how did it do this weekend, Mr. Weinraub? I mean, does it look like it’s going to make the money back?

BERNARD WEINRAUB: Nobody can tell. It did very well this weekend, but it only grossed $27/28 million, which on the face of it is not that much for a picture of that scale, but it did very, very well, and it sold out in places like New York and Los Angeles and other large cities. But what’s interesting about “Titanic” is its length. It’s 3 1/4 hours. And because of that, you only have three showings at theaters, while an average film, a film that’s 2 hours has five or six showings. So “Titanic” you know, studios are only getting half of what they ordinarily would be getting from a film. And that’s a real problem with “Titanic.”

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, gentlemen, we have to leave it there. People can go see it for three hours and ten minutes or not, if they choose, but thank you both very much for being with us.