Was 'American Pie' More Influential Than 'Titanic'?

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The epic marked the end of one era, while the teen-sex comedy arrived at the start of another.

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Paramount / Universal

In the late '90s, a screenplay made the studio rounds bearing the unwieldy title, "Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy That Can Be Made For Under $10 Million That Most Readers Will Probably Hate But I Think You Will Love." That's a cheeky move for a young screenwriter, risking having his work tossed on the thanks-but-no-thanks pile by overworked script readers fatigued with first-timers' glib attempts to catch the eye. But the script sold, and writer Adam Herz's modest little homage to the movies of his youth, and to his youth itself, ended up grossing nearly a quarter of a billion dollars worldwide, spawning three theatrical sequels and four straight-to-video sequels, and providing the primary source of income for comic actor Eugene Levy for the past 13 years. That "Untitled Teenage Sex Comedy" was 1999's American Pie.

Two years before that, James Cameron made good on years of obsession with shipwrecks by dramatizing the most terrible wreck of them all, using the tragedy of the Titanic to frame a steadfastly old-fashioned epic love story. His Titanic aimed to be the millennial Gone With the Wind, with the doomed ocean liner making collateral damage of its young lovers as surely as the sinking confederacy helped scotch whatever chance Scarlett and Rhett might have had at a happy ending. Cameron's 1997 film struck audiences, particularly young women, like few could have predicted, and it held the title of biggest moneymaker in history for more than a decade.

'American Pie' was in the vanguard of a movement that has brought 'The Hangover,' 'Old School,' and practically the entirety of Judd Apatow's film career.

Both of these films are back on the marquee this week. Titanic, the box office behemoth and the Oscar juggernaut, has gotten itself a 3D makeover just in time for the impending 100th anniversary of the vessel's downfall. The more modestly proportioned American Pie brings back its original cast of sex-crazed hijinks-makers, now husbands, wives, and parents, for an American Reunion. Cameron's film is bigger in nearly every quantifiable sense. But more than a decade after their releases, which really looms larger on the cultural horizon?

In many ways, Titanic was among the last of a dying breed: the big-budget romantic epic, full of sweeping widescreen vistas, swelling music, and heartsick lovers. Budgets haven't gotten smaller, and studios still spare no expense to wow audiences with big stories writ bigger on cinema screens. But those dollars are now largely spent on special-effects-driven sci-fi, action, and fantasy pieces: Pirates of the Caribbean, Transformers, John Carter, and any number of super-hero films.

The stately charms of Doctor Zhivago or Out of Africa are largely things of the past, apart from an occasional anomaly like Atonement. Cameron's own Avatar, which knocked his earlier film from the top of the box-office heap, retains many of the familiar contours, but comes dressed up in sci-fi trappings and blue digital makeup.

If any successful modern films bear even a hint of Titanic's influence, it's a series one might not initially think of: Twilight. Get past the sparkly vampires and werewolves, and what do you have? Stilted dialogue; lovers separated by class (or, in this case, mortality); a floppy-haired, dreamy-eyed, honorable young hero willing to risk anything to save his love; and an indecisive furrowed-brow heroine eventually willing to give up all the conveniences of the life she was born into in order to be with her slightly dangerous paramour. All wrapped up in a package marketed to teenage girls. Sounds a lot like Cameron's very own ballad of Jack and Rose.

Sure, Rose never gave birth to a blood-sucking monster that nearly took her life in gestation. But she and Jack never really got the chance to try, now did they?

Realistic epics have all but disappeared in Titanic's wake. Fantasy has become a requirement to justify moviemaking of that size, and 1997 may be the last year that a historical film of the scope and budget of Titanic could have been made without otherworldly elements. If it had been shot today, it's easy to imagine that someone might have insisted on including some supernatural beasties to spice things up. If you think I'm imagining the potential gleam in a studio executive's eye at that hypothetical pitch meeting, need I remind you that we're less than three months away from the release of Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter?

American Pie, meanwhile, came at the beginning of an era. That's not to say it was the first mass-market R-rated raunchy sex comedy. Animal House predates it by over 20 years, and the '80s were littered with films in the same vein, from Porky's to Revenge of the Nerds. But that genre was often marginal at best, and was mostly in a lull throughout the '90s until There's Something About Mary in 1998 and American Pie in 1999. Those films heralded a resurgence in low-to-medium budget comedies that have pushed the boundaries of taste and the MPAA's delicate sensibilities ever since.

Look a little more closely at the numbers. Titanic made $1.8 billion on a production budget of $200 million, at that time the largest budget in history. That's a staggering success by any measure, with an 800 percent return on investment. American Pie's $235 million seems like the change Paramount studio heads found in their executive-suite sofa cushions by comparison—except when one considers that the movie nearly met Adam Herz's title-page promise, costing just $11 million to make. That's a 2,000 percent return.

The surest genre bet for budget-to-return has long been in horror flicks, but in the past decade, R-rated comedies have established themselves as solid business propositions as well. American Pie was in the vanguard of a movement that has brought us such success stories as the Hangover movies, Superbad, Old School, and practically the entirety of Judd Apatow's film career.

There's no taking away from Titanic that it was groundbreaking. It changed perceptions of how much money a studio could justify spending up front, how much money it might make after, and opened up new audience segments that had been largely ignored before. But culturally, it was a culmination, not a starting point. American Pie may not be as polished or aspire to great heights—this is a film in which a teenage boy has sex with a pie, after all—but it got in on the ground floor of a sea change in the kind of movies we watch on a regular basis.

In another 15 years, it could be interesting to look back at this moment again in terms of pop culture trends. Not so much in terms of American Reunion, which is unlikely to make much of an impact beyond what the original already has. But Titanic's 3D retrofit comes at a point in time when the current 3D revival may be on its last legs. As such, it could come to pass that Titanic winds up serving as the symbolic endpoint for not just the romantic epic, but for this round of 3D filmmaking, too. Legacies, it seems, aren't always all they're cracked up to be.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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