Tuesday will be the 20th anniversary of the release of James Cameron's blockbuster film Titanic. The movie was over three hours long, cost $200 million to make, and everyone already knew how it ended, since it was based on the real-life sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912. Studio executives expected a flop of epic proportions, not because the movie was bad, but because they had sunk so much money into it that it had seemingly impossible hurdles to jump before it could break even. It was a miracle that Cameron got the chance to do the movie in the first place.
Cameron asked for $125 million to make Titanic. Fox Chairman Peter Chernin balked, and told Cameron he could make the movie he had first pitched as “Romeo and Juliet on a boat” if he could have it ready for a July 1997 release, and keep the budget to $110 million. Cameron, perhaps believing this might really be possible at the time — and perhaps also figuring it was better to beg for forgiveness than to ask for permission — said he could do it, offering to forfeit $4 million of his own salary to squeeze under the line.
Almost as soon as Titanic went into production, it began to go over budget. In 1996, shooting a typical action blockbuster — a Batman Forever or a Tomorrow Never Dies — cost an average of $100,000 to $150,000 a day. Titanic averaged between $225,000 and $300,000 — and this was after construction ended on the brand-new 40-acre movie studio Cameron needed to film it. He had considered locations all over the world, and ultimately decided on a spot 15 miles south of the border, in Rosarito, Mexico. Workers needed 10,000 tons of dynamite to blast a hole in the coastline big enough for the 17-million-gallon open-air tank — the largest ever built — that Cameron needed to hold his ship.
That's just the beginning of the spending bill for the production of Titanic. The finished film spent months in theaters and made a billion dollars, mainly due to repeat viewings. Read how Titanic went from Cameron's obsession with the ocean to a pop culture phenomenon twenty years ago, with input from Cameron, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and others at Buzzfeed.