Sure, James Cameron can rest easy now as the 3D version of “Titanic” makes its way into theaters; but at the beginning of the first test screening for the original version of the film in 1997, the acclaimed filmmaker thought he was, well, sunk.
In an interview a day before his sci-fi epic “Avatar” opened in theaters in 2009, Cameron told me that he was horrified by the initial reception of “Titanic” at the film’s first test screening for an audience.
Slideshow: ‘Titanic’ stars then, now
“I stayed up for 36 hours getting ready for that screening,” Cameron recalled for me. “We flew to Minneapolis and were at the Mall of America. It was a surprise screening and (audience members) had been told that it was going to be something else. I can’t remember what.”
But when the print began to roll, Cameron said he was provided with a moment he’ll never forget.
“When the title came up, we were all expecting them to cheer because there was a lot of press on ‘Titanic’ at the time,” Cameron remembered. “(Instead), there was dead silence. I thought, ‘Oh my (expletive) God. We’re doomed. We’re doomed.'”
Thankfully, Cameron soon realized, the chilly reaction was all due to a huge misunderstanding.
“It turned out that they just thought it was a trailer for ‘Titanic.’ They didn’t think the movie was starting because they had been told it was something else,” Cameron explained. “They actually believed what they were told, and I thought, ‘That’s pretty cool. People actually believe each other there.’ I don’t mean that as like a naïvete, but that people are honest.”
Cameron told me that a negative reception for the film was a realistic expectation, given the criticism in the press about his $200 million budget for the film — an astronomical amount of money to make a film in 1997.
But a positive reaction at the Minneapolis test screening — after the opening titles, of course — cured a lot of ills for Cameron.
“The screening was one of the most amazing screenings of my life, because before, everybody convinced us that we were the biggest idiots in the history of movies and we were literally on this whole doomed thing,” Cameron said with a laugh.
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Of course, it was nothing but smooth sailing for “Titanic” when it opened in theaters, as the film went on to score more than $600 million in ticket sales at the North American box office and capture 11 Academy Awards. Cameron took three Oscars home for his work on the film, including Best Director, Best Editor (shared with Conrad Buff IV and Richard A. Harris) and Best Picture (for producing the film with Jon Landau).
“Titanic’s” domestic box office record held firm until 2010, when “Avatar” surpassed and ended up with more $760.5 million at the North American box office.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, “Titanic 3D” opens in theaters nationwide on Wednesday — 11 days before the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the real-life passenger liner.
The RMS Titanic sunk April 15, 1912, in the North Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg during its maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City.
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