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Gamechangers in Box-Office History: When ‘Titanic‘ Proved Its Dominance, Once and For All

On this weekend 22 years ago, the Oscar bump was alive and well and “original blockbuster” wasn’t an oxymoron.

Titanic

“Titanic”

20th Century Fox/Paramount/REX/Shutterstock

With theaters in an unprecedented nationwide shutdown, we look back at the game-changing titles in play on this weekend in box-office history.

Under normal circumstances, this weekend would likely have been the best of 2020 to date. With “Mulan” (Disney) set to open and “A Quiet Place Part II” (Paramount) in its second week, grosses totaling $200 million were likely.

And in 1998, this was the weekend after the Oscars — a date then known as something of a box-office dead zone. Streaming didn’t exist, and theater windows were longer than 90 days, which meant new films stayed away because they didn’t want to compete with the post-Oscar bump. Today, Oscar movies are no threat since most winners are on some form of VOD, or in wider release.

Avengers Endgame

“Avengers: Endgame”

Disney

Last year, much of the “Avengers: Endgame” coverage claimed that it was the biggest film ever worldwide as well as #2 in domestic history. However, that calculation ignores ticket prices. Adjusted, “Endgame” is #16 on the all-time list of domestic ticket sales. “Titanic” is #5, one of only 11 films (in current dollar values) to surpass $1 billion (just under $1.3 billion). That compares to $893 million for “Endgame” and slightly more for James Cameron’s later smash, “Avatar.”

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by 20th Century Fox/Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock (5886183bx)Titanic (1997)Titanic - 1997Director: James Cameron20th Century Fox/ParamountUSAScene StillDrama

“Titanic”

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20th Century Fox/Paramount/Kobal/Shutterstock

This week tells much of the story of how “Titanic” achieved its massive total.

• This was its 15th week at #1. It turned out to be the the last one at that rank (“Lost in Space” replaced it), but it remained in the top 10 for another 11 weeks. That brought the film to $600 million in 1998 dollars, around $1.2 billion today. A 2012 3D reissue and other later showings added about another (adjusted) $70 million.

• No other film has spent that much time at #1 from its initial release. “Star Wars” made more than “Titanic,” but it had a more limited opening and dropped below the top spot in early June 1977 before going wider and then staying at the top for six months. “E.T.” also had more total weeks, but in the summer of 1983 it dropped a couple of times in the face of an opening film.

• For “Titanic,” this weekend’s total — $30 million adjusted — was its lowest to date, although it had 500 more theaters than its opening weekend. Repeat viewings built the “Titanic” phenomenon, but it was slowed by its Christmas opening when few theaters could give the 194-minute film two screens. This was very different from “Endgame,” which opened in late April against no other film, at about 1,500 more theaters, and many of those with four or more screens.

• “Titanic” box office dropped 11 percent after its 11-Oscar win. However, it had already benefited as the presumptive winner with a big post-nomination boost. All told, it added another $200 million million adjusted after the win. This year, “Parasite” added $20 million and it was considered a major bump.

Grease

The other gross that jumped out on this weekend in 1998 was the #2 position for the 20th-anniversary re-release of “Grease.” The John Travolta musical had long been on home video, and played on TV and cable, yet Paramount was able to lure audiences back for another $25 million (about $55 million adjusted). At $755 million adjusted total, it remains the biggest-grossing musical since “The Sound of Music.”

This was the third lowest weekend of 1998, with an adjusted total of $150 million. Today, that’s considered solid for non-summer periods — but at this time, we’d already begun seeing big post-opening drops for solid titles like “Primary Colors,” “The Man in the Iron Mask,” “Wild Things,” and “U.S. Marshall.”

”The Newton Boys” was the sole new wide release to make the top 10. Richard Linklater’s  period bank-robbery story reunited him with Ethan Hawke and Matthew McConaughey. It fell quickly, amassing around $20 million adjusted.

This weekend in history, there’s no bigger box office story than “Titanic.” However, it’s also worth noting two other Oscar-winning films got a push. “As Good As It Gets,” which won the Best Actor for Jack Nicholson and Best Actress for Helen Hunt, jumped 13 percent to pass $250 million. And “Good Will Hunting,” with supporting actor and screenplay wins, fell just 8 percent, with a total only slightly lower.

Today it’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine audiences responding so fervently to star-driven, Oscar-winning dramedies.

March 27-29, 1998

1. Titanic (Paramount) Week 15; Last weekend: #1

$15,214,000/ $30,428,000 (-11%) in 3,253 (+64); PTA: $4,705/ $9,410; Cumulative: $515,263,000/ $1,030,526,000

2. Grease (Paramount) NEW  (reissue)

$12,705,000/$25,410,000 in 2,064 theaters; PTA: $6,155/ $12,310; Cumulative: $12,705.000/$25,410,000

3. Primary Colors (Universal) Week 2; Last weekend: #2

$7,005,000/ $14,010,000 (-42%) in 1,968 theaters (+3); PTA: $3,559/ $7,118; Cumulative: $22,344,000/ $44,688,000

4. The Man in the Iron Mask (MGM) Week 3; Last weekend: #3

$6,335,000/ $12,670,000 (-43%) in 3,101 theaters (no change); PTA: $2,042/ $4,084; Cumulative: $43,653,000/ $87,306,000

5. Wild Things (Sony) Week 2; Last weekend: #4

$5,668,000 / $11,336 (-41%) in 2,133 theaters (no change); PTA: $2,603/ $5,206; Cumulative: $18,213,000/ $36,426,000

6. As Good as It Gets (Sony) Week 14; Last weekend: #8

$4,302,000 / $8,604,000 (+32%) in 1,564 theaters (-40); PTA: $2,750/ $5,550; Cumulative: $131,786,000/ $263,573,000

7. (tied) Good Will Hunting (Miramax) Week 17; Last weekend: #7

$4,117,000/(+2%) in 1,642 theaters (-163); PTA: $2,507/ $5,014; Cumulative: $121,566,000/ $243,133,000

7. (tied) U.S. Marshals (Warner Bros.) Week 4; Last weekend: #5

$4,117,000/ $8,234,000 (-43%); PTA: $1,689/ $3,378; Cumulative: $49,514,000/ $99,026,000

9. The Newton Boys (20th Century Fox) NEW

$4,110,000/ $8,220,000 in 1,965 theaters; PTA: $2,040/ $4,080; Cumulative: $4,110,000/ $8,220,000

10. Mr. Nice Guy (New Line) Week 2; Last weekend: #6

$2,586,000 / $5,163,000 (-51%); PTA: $1,767/ $3,534; Cumulative: $9,304,000/ $18,608,000

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