Exactly 25 years ago today, Titanic made box office history. The 1997 romance starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as star-crossed lovers aboard the doomed ocean liner became the first movie to earn more than $1 billion worldwide.
Although some had predicted Titanic would tank just like its namesake, director James Cameron’s film was a massive critical and commercial success, becoming the highest-grossing film ever by 1998. It held that distinction for 12 years before it was surpassed by Cameron’s 2009 sci-fi adventure Avatar, which to date has grossed $2.9 billion.
Cameron is still smashing box office records today. His sequel Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) surpassed Titanic last month to become the third-highest grossing film ever worldwide (behind Avengers: Endgame). It has earned nearly $2.27 billion so far, according to Box Office Mojo, and it’s not even out of theaters yet.
How does Cameron keep doing it? Each of his record-breaking blockbusters have followed a similar pattern: epic movies so ambitious in scope that new technology had to be developed just to make them happen, which in turn meant historically large budgets.
They all took the same gamble: huge box office returns or bust. Cameron, himself, called it the “worst business case in movie history,” and told GQ that Avatar 2 was so expensive to make, it wouldn’t break even unless it was “the third or fourth highest-grossing film in history.”
Expectations of Titanic Proportions
Cameron’s penchant for high-budget cinematic gambles began with Titanic. Despite directing box office hits like the Terminator films, Aliens (1986), and True Lies (1994), Cameron had an usually ambitious undertaking on his hands in Titanic. Cameron spent 21 days filming actual Titanic wreckage underwater and would need the right set to create his vision.
For the film, 20th Century Fox built the cutting-edge Baja Studios overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Baja California, Mexico. The $20 million studio boasts some of the world’s largest water tanks built for underwater filming, with one capable of holding 17 million gallons. It also includes an “infinite horizon” tank that gives the impression of merging with the Pacific and housed a 775-foot Titanic replica.
With a budget of $200 million, Titanic was the most expensive film ever made at the time, and many feared it would become an historic financial failure. Cameron offered to forfeit his share of the profits to keep the movie alive, and when studio executives suggested cutting a full hour of footage, Cameron reportedly replied, “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!”
Of course, those fears proved unfounded, as Titanic became an unprecedented financial hit and won 11 Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
An Even Higher Bar for Avatar
For his next project, Avatar, Cameron went even further, pushing limits in terms of budget and the development of filmmaking technology. Filming for Avatar was supposed to begin immediately after Titanic, but Cameron’s vision for a sprawling sci-fi adventure film featuring blue-skinned aliens on the moon Pandora was so ambitious, the technology to bring it to fruition simply didn’t exist. So first, they had to create it.
Cameron worked with Wētā FX, a New Zealand–based company behind the visual effects for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, to develop a wide variety of technological innovations. Most important were new systems for motion-capture and face-capture animation that were needed to turn the actors’ performances into their photorealistic Na’vi alien counterparts.
Avatar’s massive budget of $237 million once again created fears of financial failure. Executives thought it wouldn’t pull a profit unless audiences saw it multiple times. It seems they did just that: Avatar not only surpassed Cameron’s own all-time worldwide box office record with Titanic, the Oscar-winning film became the first movie in history to gross more than $2 billion.
Avatar 2: A Splashy Sequel
Following the success of Avatar, Cameron originally planned for its first sequel to reach theaters in 2014. Instead, it remained mired in massive delays for years, not least of which because, once again, new film technology had to be developed to achieve Cameron’s vision.
Avatar: The Way of Water was again set on Pandora, but the action this time focuses on an oceanic clan on the moon’s sea reefs. This would require performance capture scenes to be filmed underwater, which had never been done before. It took Wētā FX about 18 months to develop the necessary motion capture system, the largest visual effects project in the company’s history.
As a result, the sequel’s budget was even bigger than its predecessor, with some reports placing it at about $460 million. The stakes were once again high, but as Deadline reported, studio executives this time around took the position: don’t even bet against James Cameron.
With Avatar: The Way of the Water continuing its historic box office run and earning four Oscar nominations including Best Picture, it would seem Cameron’s personal philosophy has paid off again. As he told The New Yorker: “If you set your goals ridiculously high and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success.”
How to Watch Titanic, Avatar, and Avatar: The Way of the Water
- Titanic is available for rent or purchase on Prime Video, Apple TV, Vudu, and Google Play.
- Avatar is streaming on Disney+ and is available for rent or purchase on Prime Video, Apple TV, Vudu, and Google Play.
- Avatar: The Way of the Water is exclusively in theaters and expected to stream on Disney+ soon.
And don’t forget to mark your calendar for the 95th Academy Awards ceremony on March 12 on ABC and streaming on FuboTV and Hulu to see if the Avatar sequel will take home any Oscars.
Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.