From a very young age, James Cameron has had an obsession with shipwrecks. He was especially fascinated by the Titanic. The Titanic went missing in the extremely deep waters of the North Atlantic in 1912. It was not seen again until Robert Ballard found it in 1985, sitting on the ocean floor just four hundred miles off the coast Newfoundland, Canada.
In 1992 an IMAX documentary about Titanic, called “Titanica” was released. It was the second feature-length IMAX movie ever released, following a Rolling Stones concert documentary called “Stones at the Max,” which was released a year prior.
When James Cameron saw “Titanica” his obsession for the infamous shipwreck was reinvigorated. He was so obsessed with finding a way to visit the shipwreck personally that he conjured up a creative plan:
- Step 1: Write a movie about Titanic.
- Step 2: Convince a studio to pony-up a $100 million budget.
- Step 3: Set aside some of that budget to pay for him to personally dive down to the shipwreck to film footage.
As he would later admit:
He wrote Titanic “…not because I particularly wanted to make the movie… I wanted to dive to the shipwreck.“
Steps 1 and 2 went very smoothly. James’ most recent film, 1994’s “True Lies,” made $400 million on a budget of $100 million for 20th Century Fox. He also made “Terminator 2” for the studio in 1991. And that movie made a half billion dollars on a budget of $100 million.
So one day in the middle of 1994, James marched into the 20th Century offices, pitched “Romeo & Juliet… on the Titanic“… Fox execs were not totally convinced or confident. Fox Chairman Peter Chernin remembers being skeptical, “oooooohhhkaay… so it’s a three-hour romantic epic? No shoot-outs or car chases?” But James won the day and walked out with a greenlight and a $100 million budget commitment.
Step 3 was a bit trickier. James intentionally wrote a script that opened with a present-day crew exploring the real-life Titanic wreckage before leading into a flashback to the fictional 1912 world of Jack. Why? So he would be forced to personally visit the wreckage in a submersible multiple times to capture scenes that would be used in both the final movie AND a promotional precursor documentary that would be used to build excitement for the project.
Fox executives rebuffed this idea. To save on costs they wanted him to film models and use computer graphics to re-create the wreckage. Feeling his dream slip away, James put his foot down. Even though filming at the real Titanic would cost 30% more, James insisted that was the only way to do it right.
Fox executives relented. In 1995 alone, James traveled 2.5 miles below the ocean surface TWELVE TIMES to capture real footage of Titanic’s wreckage.
As it turned out, this would be just the first of many budget increases incurred over the course of filming “Titanic.” The film was mostly shot at a custom-built studio in Rosarita, Mexico where a full-scale Titanic replica had been built for the movie. Production was supposed to last 138 days but ultimately went on for 160 days. Kate Winslet, who got a kidney infection from spending so many hours in freezing cold water, would later say she would never work with James Cameron again. Stuntmen broke bones. Equipment constantly fell apart. The budget soared.
Fox’s $100 million commitment had ballooned to a then-unfathomable $200 million. It was the most expensive movie ever filmed up to that point. When adjusting for inflation, Titanic still stands today as the 11th most-expensive movie ever. Fox was spending over $1 million for every minute of actual screen time. The executives were scared shit-less. They were $200 million into a movie that they were convinced would flop. After all, it was a three-hour romance set in 1912.
Fox begged James to cut costs and even cut an hour of planned screen time to make the movie a more-palatable two hours. He went ballistic:
“You want to cut my movie? You’re going to have to fire me! You want to fire me? You’re going to have to kill me!“
Fox was so nervous that it eventually sold a 50% stake in the film to Paramount Pictures for an injection of $65 million. Under the deal, Fox would get international box office revenue and Paramount would get US revenue.
Giving Up His Salary
To alleviate Fox’s nerves even more, James made a concession. He agreed to forfeit his $8 million salary in exchange for a greater share of the movie’s box office gross. Fox agreed. Between the Paramount deal and James’ salary savings, it recouped $73 million of the $100 million overages it had not expected. Fox could live with that, but they were still convinced “Titanic” would be a Titanic-sized disaster at the box office.
As it turned out, that was an incorrect prediction.
Titanic was released in December 1997. It went on to gross $600 million in the US alone. It grossed another $1.5 billion worldwide, an unthinkable amount at the time. It shattered pretty much every box office record.
Titanic was then re-released in 2012, 2017 and 2023. When you add up the original run and re-releases, Titanic made $675 million in the US and $1.6 billion worldwide, for a total gross of $2.275 billion. Even after subtracting several hundred million in marketing costs, Titanic profited at least $1.4 billion. It then made another $4 BILLION from ancillary sources, notably DVD sales. All-in Titanic has likely earned around $5.5 billion in profits to date.
Trading his salary for points turned out to be a very wise move for James Cameron.
By the end of 1998, when Titanic’s box office had finally slowed down, James Cameron’s back-end points had already generated a $100 million payday. And keep in mind, that’s just from the film’s original release.
With the many billions of dollars that have been generated off Titanic in the decades since, primarily from DVD sales, network licensing deals and streaming agreements, by trading $8 million for a larger share of profits, James Cameron wound up making…
James went on to make a similar salary-for-points trade with his 2009 movie “Avatar.” When that movie ALSO went on to become the highest-grossing movie ever up to that point, James earned $350 million. So between just those two movies alone, James Cameron made $1 billion. Now you’re starting to understand how James Cameron’s net worth is currently $800 million.
And it all happened simply because James wanted someone else to foot the bill for his trips to the Titanic shipwreck so he could satisfy his obsession. Someday I hope I get to make $1 billion satisfying my obsessions 🙂
James Cameron Made A Titanic Amount Of Money By Trading Salary For Backend Profits On 1998’s “Titanic”
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