When Titanic hit theaters 20 years ago, the widely held view in Hollywood was that it would be a financial disappointment. James Cameron’s long-planned project about the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic had gone over budget (it cost $200 million, at that time a record, after being green-lit for $109 million). Filming had taken weeks longer than expected, and the final cut of the movie came in at a gargantuan three hours and 15 minutes. When Fox (who funded the project, along with Paramount) asked him to cut the movie down, Cameron responded in typically bellicose fashion: “If you want to cut my film, you’ll have to fire me. And to fire me, you’ll have to kill me.”
All of the trouble, it seems, was worth it. What Cameron delivered was an epic that recalled Hollywood’s golden age as much as it did the action-packed thrillers that the director was better known for making. “Everyone thought they were going to lose money,” he remembered years later. “Nobody was playing for the upside, myself included.” Yet the film went on to become a record-breaking sensation, grossing more than $2 billion worldwide. Titanic was something audiences hadn’t experienced before: an extravaganza of visual effects and high-octane action, crossed with a romance so broad and appealing it seemed ripped from a dime-store novel. But more than that, Cameron had brilliantly taken the true-life tale of the most famous shipwreck in the world, inserted a tragic star-crossed couple—the soulful artist Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio) and the society girl Rose (Kate Winslet)—and yet somehow managed to give his film a happy ending.