James Cameron hopes a new generation will discover an almost 3D or 2.99-D ‘Titanic’ on the big screen

It’s hard to believe, but almost 15 years ago to the day (O.K., maybe month), I sat in the Paramount Theater on the Paramount Pictures lot in Hollywood and was one of the first 100 or so people to watch James Cameron’s epic “Titanic.”  At the time, I was a very young assistant at 20th Century Fox International (I would actually work for Paramount later), fresh out of grad school and trying to work my way into the business (note to readers: marketing is not the way to go, trust me).  My boss invited me to join him and watch what had become one of the most buzzed about films of the past few years.  Pop into the next century and I’m now far removed from the studio side (or the dark side as I like to call it) and am watching 18 minutes of Cameron’s “Titanic,” now in 3D, back in the same Paramount Theater.  The more things change, the more things stay the same.  Of course, a lot has changed since then. 

Thanks to “Avatar” and his own exhaustive research, Cameron has become one of the world leaders in 3D filmmaking. It was expected then that with the explosion of 3D over the past 18 months Cameron’s billion dollar hit would be selected for a 3D upgrade, but also surprising considering the filmmaker has a clear disdain for 3D conversion process.  In remarks to the press before screening a preview of the conversion work so far, Cameron explained his stance. 

First off, like Disney and “The Lion King,” he’s excited to bring “Titanic” back to the big screen for a generation who has only seen it on DVD or television.

“We’re coming back to the screens 15 years after the initial release.  So, the 3D to me is something of a marketing hook.  I love the 3D. I think it’s spectacular.  If there had been 3D cameras and 3D theaters at the time I certainly would have shot it in 3D, but it’s also just a way of kind of reinventing the concept of a re-release and getting people to go back to theaters and commit that 3 hours and 15 minutes again,” Cameron admits. “I think the outcome when you come out of the theater is gonna be quite a bit more powerful than what you remember from watching it on home video the last time.”

Second, Cameron is doing everything possible to make this as close to real 3D in the conversion process as possible.

“I’m very much against conversion for films that have a choice, but I do believe there are classic library titles – think of your 10 or 20 or 30 favorite movies of all time — that I think should be converted to 3D, but it has to be done right,” Cameron says. “By the time we are finished we will have spent 60 weeks and about $18 million to do this working with 300 artists.”

Digital house Stereo D is doing about 90% of the work, but Cameron is immensely involved in the conversion.  He has a team of about three technical people that look at all the images several times over and give notes.  Cameron then goes through the footage in three or four hours sessions frame by frame, multiple times. Still, he laments it’s not as perfect as native photography with a 3D camera.

Cameron notes, “It’s 2.99 3D, it’s not really 3D, but the point I’m trying to make is that most conversions are done in a hurry up way in post-production are 2.4-D.  I just want to really make that distinction.” 

So, yes, considering the $18 million Paramount (your domestic distributor) and 20th Century Fox (your international distributor) is spending and the amount of man-hours Cameron is committing to this, you’re clearly getting your money’s worth.

Cameron’s longtime producing partner Jon Landeau said he was pleased about how Paramount was treating this as a “tentpole” release which will set sail again on April 6, 2012. That’s close to the 100th anniversary of when the ship first set sail on April 10, 2012.  It sank on April 15.

“We didn’t want to release it right on the day of the sinking,” Cameron reveals.  “We wanted to make it more of a celebration of the ship and story. It is a story that will prevail for a thousand years. Not the movie, but the story itself.  Because of all the amazing things that happened and the people sacrificing themselves and the band playing till the end and all those things have been so well verified and still capture our imagination now.  Even after so many horrific things have happened even here and now.”

Of course, how can their be a “Titanic” re-release without the participation of Oscar nominee Kate Winslet (her first nomination) and leading man Leonardo DiCaprio (one of the surprising omissions that year).  Winslet famously complained that Cameron almost killed her a few times during production (we think she was exaggerating), but according to the filmmaker they have made up and she’s on board.  Cameron hasn’t had a chance to speak to DiCaprio yet, but is going to visit him in Australia next month where he’s shooting Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby.” 

“We’d love to have them involved to the extent that I think people are curious about what their journey has been since ‘Titanic,'” Cameron says. “I think ‘Titanic’ cast a very long shadow over the careers of two extremely brilliant young actors who had to spend a lot of time kinda reminding people they weren’t Jack and Rose over the next few years.”

When first released, “Titanic” become a global sensation grossing a stunning $1.8 billion worldwide and tied the record for the most Academy Award nominations with 14.  It won 11 including best picture, best director (Cameron infamously shouting “I’m king of the world!” after accepting his statue) and best original song for “My Heart Will Go On.”  Still Celine Dion’s biggest hit to this day, “My Heart” also won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year and Song of the Year in 1998.  The soundtrack?  It just sold 11 million copies in the U.S. alone (unheard of these days).  The movie also had one of the first true movie websites that struck a nerve with the public.  It didn’t hurt that there were a lot fewer website destinations back then, but TitanicMovie.com (now inactive) had so many visitors (1 million a day for a prolonged period) both studios had to figure out a strategy to pay or it (I know, I worked on it).*

*Only a few years later, now defunct distributor Artisan Entertainment was running trade ads spinning “massive” traffic for the official website for “The Blair Witch Project.” It was nothing compared to what “Titanic” hit, Fox and Paramount just didn’t run trade ads.

As for the footage Cameron presented it was quite impressive.  Out of all the different pockets of the film previewed in 3D, it wasn’t the iconic shot of the ship sinking straight down into the water that was the most striking, but the claustrophobic shots of Rose pushing herself through hallways filled with rising water to save Jack from drowning.  Watching the footage on the big screen was also a reminder of all the great details in the picture that get lost — even on a big screen TV.  The detail in the production and costume design was immense.  The sneak was also a reminder of the chemistry between the two life long friends that sometimes gets lost on a cable repeat on TNT (or in their reunion “Revolutionary Road”).

Can Cameron, Paramount and 20th Century Fox create a little bit of that magic again next year?  Considering how wrong the naysayers who thought “Titanic” was going to be the next “Waterworld” back in the summer of 1997 were, I wouldn’t bet against them.

“Titanic” in 3D will open nationwide and in 2D on April 6, 2012.

Are you ready to dive back into the frigid waters of ‘Titanic’?  Does your heart still go on?  Share your thoughts below.

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